A Gourd of Hope - The Drinking Gourd




The Lincoln
Dipper  Gourd


Following the star to the river bank


Escape route to the Underground Railroad

Over the centuries the gourd has nourished mankind providing music, art, vessels, bowls, canisters, food, and dippers.   Many of us can remember drinking well water from a gourd ladle (a drinking gourd).   In the 18th century Southern United States, the drinking gourd also provided hope.  

Stories come down to us about an American Folk song, “
Follow the Drinking Gourd”.   The Drinking Gourd song was purportedly used by an Underground Railroad operative to encode escape instructions and a map.  These directions then enabled fleeing slaves to make their way north from Alabama to the Ohio River and freedom.  

In the song, the drinking gourd was a reference to the Big Dipper, Ursa Major, which it resembles.  The Big Dipper points to Polaris showing the way North.  Folklore has it that fugitive slaves in the United States used it as a point of reference so they would not get lost.  

The escape route travelled north to the headwaters of the Tombigbee River, through the divide, and then down the Tennessee River to the Ohio River.  Slaves were told the Tennessee joined another river in the song’s last verse. Once they crossed that river, a guide would meet them on the north bank and guide them on the rest of their journey to freedom.

The Drinking Gourd has played an important role in the Civil Rights and folk revival movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and in contemporary elementary school education.  My wife, Janet, was an elementary school teacher for 31 years.  Every February is black history month when the story of the
Drinking Gourd song is regularly taught in our schools.  We would send long handled dipper gourds for the classes because most of the students have never seen a dipper gourd. 

When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls
Follow the Drinking Gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd

The riverbank makes a very good road.
The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, travelling on,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

The river ends between two hills
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
There’s another river on the other side
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

Take the time to contact your local schools to see if you can contribute dipper gourd examples or gourd talks during Black history month.

View from the top of Woodall Mountain where the river ends between two hills.  The headwaters of the Tombigbee River end near Woodall Mountain, the high point in Mississippi and an ideal reference point for a map song. 

More information can be found at the following Websites:
http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/

http://www.osblackhistory.com/drinkinggourd.php

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