Follow the Drinking Gourd

Follow the Drinking Gourd (Peg Leg Joe)

Follow The Drinking Gourd

It’s not known if Peg Leg Joe was a single individual or a combination of a number of people as there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that one person is credited with that name. According to the story, Peg Leg Joe had a prosthesis or “peg or wooden” right leg and wrote a song called “Follow the Drinking Gourd” that contained codes that would help slaves travel through the Underground Railroad.

  • The story talks about Peg Leg having worked in Whynott, Indiana fields and traveled pretending that he was a carpenter. He would arrive in locations and teach the slaves the song so that they could learn how they could escape and follow the Underground Railroad to get to freedom. Other stories tell that he was a sailor that went to a few plantations near Mobile, Alabama in 1859. After he showed up many of the slaves would disappear.
  • The Underground Railroad wasn’t a railroad, but a network of people, homes and shelters that would take in and hide slaves as they traveled to the northern free states or Canada. The song tells them to leave only in the spring and travel by night, following the Big Dipper as it points to the North Star. They were to keep a lookout for dead trees, a left foot, and a peg foot, and then they would view a river, then a second river that they could cross to get to freedom.
  • The lyrics of the song have various meanings that the slaves would easily understand.  The lyrics in the first verse talks about leaving when days are getting longer and when the breeding season of the Quail happens, which is in the spring.  The lyrics of “drinkin’ gou’d” refers to the gourd that is hollowed out that slaves used to drink water. In the lyrics it’s also a reference to the Big Dipper.
  • The chorus of the song includes “For the ole man say,” and this is slang used by those at sea for “Commanding Officer” or “Captain.” It is said that Peg Leg Joe had been a sailor and he was referencing himself.
  • The second verse is a description of the travel north from Mobile, Alabama. The first river mentioned is the Tombigbee which then empties directly into Mobile Bay. The headwater of the Tombigbee continue to the northeastern area of Mississippi. This is followed by the alert to watch for dead trees, and any landmarks that had marks on them resembling a left or right foot.
  • The third verse of the song talks about heading through the northeastern area of Mississippi and then onto Tennessee. The words “The riva ends a-tween two hills” relates to the two hills that are Woodall Mountain and the lower hill next to it. However, looking at it in the right place, they would look like two hills at once.  The continued words in the third verse say “Nuther riva on the other side” which is said to mean on the other side of the hills is a river that is the Tennessee.
  • The fourth verse is a description of the end of the journey in Paducah, Kentucky. The words “Wha the little riva” is when the Tennessee, followed by “Meet the grea’ big un” which is said to translate to meeting up with the Ohio River. The Ohio and Tennessee Rivers do come together in Paducah, Kentucky, which is on the opposing side of southern Illinois. The lyrics of “The ole man waits” is said to relate to the fact that there would be someone waiting to help them once they arrived to freedom.
  • The song has been used by the civil rights movement as well as recorded by a number of famous musical groups throughout the years.

Q&A:

 What was the Underground Railroad?
A network of people, homes and shelters that would take in and hide slaves as they traveled to the northern free states or Canada

Who was taught the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd?”
Slaves that were working

Toilet Paper History
Toilet Paper History
What did the song Follow the Drinking Gourd offer as a hidden meaning?
Directions through the Underground Railroad to freedom

What symbol did the drinking gourd also represent?
The Big Dipper

In the story, who was Peg Leg Joe?
A former sailor with a wooden leg that would arrive as a carpenter and teach slaves the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

On the path to freedom what specific symbols on the ground were the slaves to look out for?
Dead trees and anything that looked like a right or left foot