Today in History:

Music of the Civil War

Follow the Drinkin' Gourd

On the surface, Follow the Drinkin' Gourd is a song about the hollowed out gourd used as a water dipper.  According to legend, the song is escape instructions and a map enabling fleeing slaves to make their way north from Mobile, Alabama along the banks of the Tennessee River to the Ohio River and freedom!

As slave lore tells it, the North Star played a key role in helping slaves to find their way—a beacon to true north and freedom. Escaping slaves could find it by locating the Big Dipper, a well-recognized asterism most visible in the night sky in late winter and spring. As the name implies, its shape resembles a dipping ladle, or drinking gourd. From the gourd’s outline, the North Star could be found by extending a straight line five times the distance from the outermost star of the bowl.

Celestial Gourd

For millenia, celestial wayfinding knowledge—navigating by observing the stars and other night sky patterns—passed from generation to generation. For people that did not know how to read or write, "reading" the night sky provided important clues for survival. This information helped people to find their way without getting lost. Many former slaves, including historical figures like Harriet Tubman, used the celestial gourd, or dipper, to guide them on their journey north. The Big Dipper and North Star were referenced in many slave narratives and songs. Follow the Drinking Gourd was a popular African American folksong composed decades after the War and based on these anecdotes that memorialized the significance of these stars.


Follow the Drinking Gourd

When the sun come back,
and the firs’ quail call,
Then the time is come.
Foller the drinkin gou’d.
Foller the drinking gou’d,
Foller the drinking gou’d;
For the old man say,
“Foller the drinkin gou’d.”
The riva ends a-tween two hills,
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;
Nuther riva on the other side
Follers the drinkin gou’d.
Wha the little riva
Meet the grea’ big un,
The old man waits –
Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.