Follow the Drinking Gourd

Traditional

This song has been mythologized as containing encoded instructions for enslaved Blacks escaping slavery. What are some of the supposedly encoded instructions? The "drinking gourd" is supposedly the Big Dipper constellation, which points to the North Star and may have helped African Americans escape slavery by fleeing to the North. The references to rivers and hills may have been instructions to follow a river.

What is the date of the earliest written account of the song? What is the date of the most-known version of the song? Why do these dates cast doubt on the song's supposed coded meanings?

How much do we know about the meaning of song's like "Follow the Drinking Gourd" to enslaved Blacks in the 1800s?

How is the twentieth-century mythology of "Follow the Drinking Gourd" both good and bad? How are such mythologies positive forces in the world? What are the potential dangers of mythology?


"Follow the Drinking Gourd" performed by the American Spiritual Ensemble on The Spiritual, © 2007. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

To learn more about the American Spiritual Ensemble, visit their website.

View the lyrics and music for "Follow the Drinking Gourd."

The well-known African American spiritual "Follow the Drinking Gourd" has a complicated and contested history. Different versions of the song have been documented from as early as 1912 to as late as 1955. The earliest published version appeared in 1928 in a publication of the Texas Folklore Society based on the findings of amateur folklorist H. B. Parks (1879–1958).

The original song's publication
The earliest publication of the song published by the Texas Folklore Society in 1928.

The song later appeared in American Ballads and Folks Songs (1934), compiled by John and Alan Lomax, but the version of "Follow the Drinking Gourd" that is most widely known today is the one identified and expanded upon by Lee Hays (1914–81), cofounder of the popular singing group the Weavers. Hays claims to have heard the melody (but not the lyrics) from his African American nurse, "Aunty" Laura, but he may have invented this story to portray his version as an authentic folk song. Hays published his version, with a refined melody and a revised version of the Lomax lyrics, in 1947.

The words "follow the drinking gourd" are often said to have contained a coded message telling enslaved people to follow the constellation known as the Big Dipper (which points to the North Star) to be guided to freedom in the North. Almost each line of the song has been linked to a specific coded instruction along the path to freedom, and this has sparked the imagination of writers, inspiring a novel in 1940 and a stage play in 1969 by Lorraine Hansberry. The song and the story of its "coded message" has also been popularized through children's books, planetarium demonstrations, and a variety of educational programs and publications.

The authenticity of the coded message, however, has been called into question. There is historical evidence that spirituals such as "Follow the Drinking Gourd" spoke to enslaved peoples' desires to move north and escape captivity. For example, Frederick Douglass wrote, "A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, / I am bound for the land of Canaan' something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan" (p. 87). But, as James B. Kelley points out, such evidence does not support the claim that songs contained specific and detailed instructions for escape, as "Follow the Drinking Gourd" is said to include. Furthermore, the first written account of the "meaning" of the song is H. B. Parks's from 1928. Tracing the history of the song's meaning, Kelley shows that subsequent "interpreters" added details about the song's meaning throughout the twentieth century.

The extent to which the song contained a coded meaning for enslaved people cannot be known. But what is known is that much of that message was invented in the twentieth-century classroom.

Lorraine Hansberry's play, The Drinking Gourd.