“Follow the Drinking Gourd” (by Roger McGuinn)
From Roger McGuinn's "The Folk Den Project" page:
"In November of 1995 I began a project for the preservation of the music I love, Folk Music. Each month I would record a song, print the lyrics and chords, add a personal note and put it on my web site, mcguinn.com. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to learn the songs and to be able to sing them with their families and friends, so downloads were offered free of charge."
The lyrics, chords, and notes on each song can be found at the Folk Den Project website.
In 2005, Roger McGuinn released a 4xCD to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the FOLK DEN. The
compilation contains 100 favorites re-recorded in 24-bit 44.1 KHz
Stereo, and comes with detailed liner notes. The compilation is available at The Folk Den Project.
Special thanks to Nedra Talley Ross (of the Ronettes) for background vocals.
FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD DECODED
[A] Follow the [Em] drinking gourd!
[A] Follow the [Em] drinking gourd.
For the [G] old man is [D] waiting to [C] carry you to [D] freedom
[Em] Follow the [D] drinking [Em] gourd.
The old man in this chorus was Peg Leg Joe, a sailor-turned-carpenter who had lost part of his right leg in an accident at sea. Joe wintered in the South doing odd jobs, from plantation to plantation. When he wasn't working he taught the slaves this song containing a secret escape route to freedom in the North.
The Drinking Gourd is not a gourd, but the Big Dipper with its two pointer stars (Dubhe and Merak) that visually lead to the North Star.
By following the North Star the slaves were able to consistently navigate northward.
When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.
Each year when the quails migrated south, the slaves were told to begin their journey northward, which entailed crossing the unnavigable Ohio River. It was too swift and wide to cross, except in winter, when it was frozen and slaves could walk to the other shore on the ice.
The riverbank makes a very good road,
The dead trees will show you the way,
Left foot, peg foot traveling on,
Following the drinking gourd.
Peg Leg Joe marked one bank of the Tombigbee River in Mississippi with his easily identifiable footprints. By following them and the dead trees along the riverbank, the slaves could have a safe journey free from plantation owner's hounds.
The river ends between two hills,
Follow the drinking gourd,
There's another river on the other side,
Follow the drinking gourd.
When the Tombigbee ended, the slaves were told to continue northward, over the hills, to the Tennessee River where the Underground Railroad would help them.
Lyrics and chords available from Folk Den Project.
Follow the Drinking Gourd by Roger McGuinn is licensed under a Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.