STLT#152, Follow the Drinking Gourd

Hurrah for the Hymnal Commission, who noted at the bottom of the page that this was a code song used by the Underground Railroad, much like Wade in the Water and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, to communicate the map to freedom.

I won’t go through the whole song – there are plenty of sites that do that for you. Of course, the drinking gourd is the big dipper, ‘when the sun comes back and the first quail calls’ is springtime; the second two verses are remarkably explicit.

The question, of course, is whether they’re too explicit, and was this version written after the Civil War? There’s some evidence to suggest that might be the case, although it’s also possible that it’s not at all contradictory to have some lyrics codified in various forms long after the original was sung, thanks to oral tradition.

Follow the drinking gourd,
follow the drinking gourd,
for the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom,
follow the drinking gourd.

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
follow the drinking gourd.
The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom,
follow the drinking gourd.


Now the river bank makes a mighty good road,
the dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,
follow the drinking gourd.


Now the river ends between two hills
follow the drinking gourd.
There’s another river on the other side,
follow the drinking gourd.


Whether or not we believe that exactly these verses are what was sung in 1860, this song is a potent reminder of the bravery of Harriet Tubman and those – white and black – who worked the Railroad. It’s a potent reminder of the strength and power of music. And it’s a tribute to the enduring heart and soul of the oppressed.

Again, we must sing it with care. Of course. But I think we have been left enough breadcrumbs that we’re unlikely to enter this one without some care.

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