Follow the drinking gourd to freedom


The stellar arrangement we call the Big Dipper is among the most recognizable in the sky. Why we love it is something of a mystery.

Its stars are not exceptionally bright. By modern definition, it isn’t even a constellation. It makes up the brighter stars of the larger constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear.

However, it sits in the north, and the front stars of the Dipper’s bowl point prominently toward Polaris, the North Star.

In days past, many people needed to find their way in the dark, dark night. Looking for the Dipper helped them find their way.

Even a cursory glance at the Dipper is always an emotional experience for me because of an old song that celebrates the Dipper as a signpost on the rugged road to freedom.

Enslaved people in America imported their impression of the Dipper from Africa, where they saw it as a dried, hollowed-out squash they called the Drinking Gourd.

It seems almost unbelievable today, but there was a time when America was so inhumane that some people owned other people as slaves.

Who would not rebel against such involuntary servitude? But escape was dangerous.

Escapees had to travel by night over unfamiliar ground to escape detection. They had only the food they could carry with them. They had to sleep in hidden “hollers” on the cold, hard ground during daylight hours.

If they managed to reach the non-slave states after a long and desperate journey, they were still subject to capture and return to the South.

But escape they did, and thank heavens, they got a bit of help from those people who abhorred the inhumanity of slavery. One of those so-called “abolitionists” was a legendary character called Peg Leg Joe, reputed to be a former sailor who had lost a leg in service to the sea.

Peg Leg Joe traveled the South and was hired here and there as a field hand. While he worked, he sang a song to the tune of the old gospel hymn “Sinner, You Better Get Ready.” As was customary in those days, the enslaved field hands would sing along.

Here’s the tune’s chorus.

“Follow the drinking gourd,

Follow the drinking gourd,

For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom

If you follow the drinking gourd.”

Unbeknownst to their masters, Peg Leg Joe was instructing the workers in the field how to escape their bitter servitude. Joe is the song’s “old man,” nautical jargon for the captain of a ship.

When should they begin their perilous journey? The song’s first verse implies the answer — in the early spring, when the sun returns from its winter hibernation, and they heard the quail’s first “bobwhite.”

“When the sun comes back,

and the first quail calls,

Follow the drinking gourd.”

To escape detection, they traveled by night, with the Drinking Gourd showing them the way north. But the stars offer little help on cloudy nights, and the way north is broad and confusing.

Thus, the second verse of the song provides further guidance.

“The river bank will make a mighty good road

The dead trees show you the way

Left foot, peg foot, traveling on

Follow the drinking gourd.”

The song instructs runaway slaves to follow the river bank of the Tombigbee River and look for Peg Leg Joe’s distinctive blaze — an oval outline of a foot next to a small circle representing Joe’s peg leg.

“The river ends between two hills,

Follow the drinking gourd,

There’s another river on the other side,

Follow the drinking gourd.”

On the other side of the “two hills” is the Tennessee River. Our weary travelers could then follow the Tennessee to the Ohio River, where they would meet with the Peg Leg Joe or, more likely, another abolitionist to ferry them across.

“Where the great big river meets the little river

Follow the drinking gourd

The old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom

If you follow the drinking gourd.”

Sadly, their journey was not yet complete. Many dangers awaited as the escapees moved slowly northward toward Canada. If they were captured, they would be sent back to southern slavery.

The abolitionist movement again came to the rescue. They had arranged a set of secret sanctuaries along the way.

Cellars and secret rooms became stations in the aptly named Underground Railroad.

I told the story of the Drinking Gourd many times at our programs at Perkins Observatory.

After those programs, I often stood facing west late at night on the Observatory’s front porch, the Drinking Gourd shining brightly to my right.

In that direction was, in earlier days, the little town of Delaware. In the House of the Seven Oaks on East William Street was a station of the Underground Railroad, according to local historians.

To get there, seekers after freedom may have walked on the ground I gazed at from the Observatory front porch.

What were those flickering shadows I saw on the lawn at Perkins? Were they the ghosts of escaped slaves still journeying toward the stars of the Big Dipper? Why do they still haunt the path to freedom? Why do they still haunt my memory?

Many of the descendants of those escaped slaves are still burdened by poverty, prejudice, violence and despair.

Many people still make an even longer journey north to freedom and opportunity, except that this time, the Rio Grande replaces the Ohio River.

At times, we all face dark nights in our lives. We all must somehow find our way.

As I stood in the dark on the porch at Perkins, a line from the old song always provided me with a measure of solace. The “stars in the heaven gonna show you the way.” And they always did.

But that is only my idiosyncratic penchant. May you all, dear readers, find your own drinking gourds to follow.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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