traditional, with new words by Chuck Phillips

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Introduction

When you first listen to Follow the Drinking Gourd, you might think it is a simple little song with lyrics about some kind of journey. The words might not make much sense, but wait until you learn the real meaning of this song. It's incredible!

Slavery existed in the southern states in the United States until the American Civil War which began in 1861. By the 1830s, however, many Americans in the northern states wanted slavery to be abolished. These people were known as abolitionists. They were white and black; in fact, some were former slaves who had escaped or had been freed. In addition, there were some people in the southern states who also believed that slavery was wrong.

On the other hand, the slave owners deliberately kept the slaves illiterate and ignorant of geography to reduce the number of escapees. Nonetheless, slaves new perfectly well that freedom lay to the north, and they knew how to locate north by the North Star, or Polaris. They often fled by just following Polaris. However, without a map or plan for an escape route, this often led to great danger.

In the early 1800s, a secret network of people was established to help slaves escape. This network became known as the Underground Railroad. Members of the Underground Railroad knew about the dangers of escaping, so by about 1831 they began to send people to the south to secretly teach the slaves specific routes that they could follow using Polaris. Slaves learned that they could locate Polaris in the sky by using the constellation commonly called the Big Dipper. Slaves passed the travel information from one plantation to the next by song. Using songs to communicate information was often a tribal custom from their original homes in Africa. By using songs, slaves were able to transmit information in secret code that they wished to keep from the white masters.

Follow the Drinking Gourd is an example of such a song. It describes an escape route from Alabama and Mississippi, and it is the only example for which the complete details are known, although no one knows where the song actually came from or when it was written. Historians know that an old man named Peg Leg Joe traveled to the South in the winter to work as a carpenter on the plantations. By doing this, he was able to teach the song to many slaves. Unfortunately, this is all that is known about Peg Leg Joe. Slaves, and other people living on farms, often made a dipper or cup with a long handle out of a plant known as a gourd. Thus for the slaves, the drinking gourd was a code name for the Big Dipper in the sky!

 
 

About the recording

This recording features Jack Glenn and Ro Glenn as the voices of two slaves, and Kevin Keating as the narrator.

Vocals, keyboards, bass and drum sequencing by Chuck.

It was recorded at the Mad Mesquite Studio, Arizona. © 2005 Charles L. Phillips