SONGS OF RESISTANCE IN AMERICA: “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

Talking Drum: At Peace...“The riverbank makes a very good road
               The dead trees show you the way
                              Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
                                             Follow the drinking gourd…”

(From “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a Negro Spiritual)


The Slave Trade– Politicized

The current flaps, flaunts and flip-flops regarding whether or not it’s politically prudent to raise taxes or lower taxes, or suspend an already suspended tax-rate hike, reminds me of how my history lessons once described the nation’s dithering over outlawing the slave trade. 

According to an old textbook of mine (“From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 5th Ed., 1980), written by John Hope Franklin, in December 1805, a senator from Vermont introduced a bill to prohibit the slave trade by January 1808.  The law against African slave trade was passed in March 1807, with the disposition of imported slaves left up to state legislatures. In the process, provisions of the bill were picked apart, debated and filibustered, often in open defiance by so-called conservatives of the day.  Meanwhile, violations against the law were popping up everywhere, while the law went unenforced. 

After 1808, according to Franklin, hardly anything had happened to the slave trade and “The first Underground Railroad was not that carried on by the Abolitionists to get the slaves to freedom but the one carried on by merchants and others to introduce more Negroes into slavery.”

But, resistance to slavery, seeded before this “peculiar institution” arrived on America’s shores, had already sprouted along the twisting pathways to freedom.  It was budding in the fields and kitchens of plantations, within secret runaway slave societies in the swamps, within the bowed but unbroken spirit of shackled black bodies, in the minds of decent thinking whites and in the cleverly disguised songs of slaves determined to be free. 

By 1815, the people in Ohio and other anti-slavery supporters in Pennsylvania had swung into full-blown, “militant abolitionism” and the Underground Railroad was a widespread institution, according to Franklin, although the term wasn’t coined as such until around 1831.  By then, the Underground Railroad had plenty of “stops” in my home state of Kentucky, with various black and white “conductors” documented as personally escorting thousands of fugitive Kentucky slaves, across the frozen Ohio River, into Ohio, and on to freedom in Canada.  

Proslavery politicians went on and on with theories about the economic and social “benefits” of slavery, despite its ugly, moral wrong– somewhat similar to jaw flapping politicians today, in my opinion.  The selfish schemes of yesteryear didn’t seem too distant from today’s conniving plots which advantage the rich and disfavor the poor and in-between, while turning back the clock of civil rights and civil wrongs— again, in my humble opinion, of course.

“Peg Leg Joe” and the Underground Railroad

During the 1800s, a growing anti-slavery sentiment and Underground Railroad “conductors,” coupled with various songs of protest and resistance, were also instrumental in helping to guide slaves to freedom.  There were several songs; but, perhaps, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is one of the more well-known which was said to have provided coded instructions for escape.  Various historians point to “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as mythical.  Yet, it was the oral history from black stories that white historians first heard about the song’s secrets.  It provided trail markings and mapping from the Tombigbee River, in Alabama, over to the Tennessee River and downriver to where the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers met, in Paducah, Kentucky. The map was said to have eventually guided the slaves to freedom, in Canada.

Various versions of the song tell the story of an old man, called “Peg Leg Joe,” who would carry slaves to freedom– if they followed the drinking gourd. Drinking gourds were merely hollowed-out shells from various plants, used by African cultures, as a drinking utensil. According to one version, in complete defiance of slave master attempts to keep slaves illiterate, slaves fully understood that freedom was northward, as well as how to approximate true north.  The Polaris was used.  Also, known as the North Star, it’s said to be the brightest star in the Ursa Minor Constellation (a.k.a., “Little Bear”), at the tip or handle of the “Little Bear” (a.k.a., “Little Dipper”).   The Polaris (North Star) is positioned almost directly north in the sky (stars of the Big Dipper point to the Little Dipper). According to legend, “Peg Leg Joe” taught the song to slaves, using the mark of his natural foot (his left) and the round hole mark of his peg-leg (his right), to indicate northward as they followed in his tracks.

The famed Abolitionist author, statesman and escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, in his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (1845), referred to the “double meaning” of songs sung by slaves which their masters didn’t understand, by design.  They often included inspirational kick-starts for Underground Railroad journeys, as well as veiled references for when the escape should take place.  The term “North Star” later became the name of Douglass’s anti-slavery newspaper until 1851, when it merged with another weekly (the Liberty Party Paper) to become the Frederick Douglass’s Paper (note:  the first African-American-owned newspaper published in the U.S. is recorded as New York’s “Freedom’s Journal,” in 1827). 

“Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Interpreted

According to an interpretation of “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” as published by NASA Quest,  the research arm of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the verse in the prologue, above, taught the slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north and look for dead trees marked with drawings of the left foot and a peg foot.  The markings distinguished the Tombigbee River from other north-south-flowing rivers which it met.  The “Drinking Gourd” was the code name for the “Big Dipper,” which had star formations that pointed toward the “Little Dipper” and the “North Star.” 

Another verse reads:  “When the sun comes back and the first quail call, Follow the Drinking Gourd.  For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom, if you follow the Drinking Gourd…”  Interpreted: “When the sun comes back” refers to winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day. Quail, arguably, were said to be migratory birds wintering in the South.  The “old man” is “Peg-Leg Joe.” This verse tells the slaves to leave in the winter and walk north toward the Drinking Gourd.  Eventually, they will meet a guide who will escort them for the remainder of the trip.

According to other research, escapees had to cross the Ohio River, but it was too wide and too fast to swim.  Thus, the Underground Railroad reasoned that the best time (not the only time) to cross was the winter time, when the river was frozen and slaves could walk across.  Regardless of where the journey began, the goal was to be at the Ohio River by the next winter.

Like yesteryear’s underestimation of the intelligence and resolve of slaves, by politicians and plantation owners, today’s political scheming for personal gain is bound to backfire.  I’m no “Tea Party” enthusiast but, in my opinion, the 2010 midterm election misreading of the “tea leaves” by both parties, Democratic and Republican, will reap grave consequences for the partisan political landscape, in 2012. The bizarre political party gamesmanship seems to continually misjudge the American electorate.  They still don’t seem get it that they’re elected to serve the people–   not themselves.

 “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s. 

         (Previously posted by Backstreet Djeli at on 12-04-2010)

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.