The Big Dipper – Hong Chau

Foller the Drinking Gou’d

When the Sun come back,

And the firs’ quail call,

Then the time is come

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

 

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;

For the ole man say,

“Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.”

 

The riva’s bank am a very good road,

The dead trees show the way,

Lef’ foot, peg foot goin’ on,

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

 

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;

For the ole man say,

“Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.”

 

The riva ends a-tween two hills,

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;

‘Nuther riva on the other side

Follers the drinkin’ gou’d.

 

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d;

For the ole man say,

“Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.”

 

Wha the little riva

Meet the grea’ big un,

The ole man waits—

Foller the drinkin’ gou’d.

 

– H.B. Parks, 1928  

http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/index.htm

 

The first time that I learned about slavery was in 5th grade and I had never been so saddened, but intrigued compared to anything I’ve learned before. We studied this lesson for one month, mainly focusing on the Underground Railroad and important figures, such as Harriet Tubman. However, the one lesson that really stuck to my mind was learning about the Big Dipper and how slaves used it to guide them to the North towards freedom. I had no knowledge about astrological signs and star formations in 5th grade so I was amazed that such thing existed and whenever there was a clear sky at night, I would search for the Big Dipper and the North Star. Thus, when I came across this song, it quickly brought back memories of what I learned in grade school. Foller the Drinkin’ Gou’d was “discovered” by H.B. Parks, a Texas entomologist and amateur folklorist, and first published in 1928 by the Texas Folklore Society (Bresler). An Underground Railroad operator named Peg Leg Joe, whom moved and worked from plantation to plantation as a carpenter, was believed to have taught slaves this song to spread the knowledge of an escape route to the North. Peg Leg Joe was used as a historical figure in this folksong; therefore, it makes the origin and context of this song a mystery.

The first verse of this song suggests that slaves should start escaping in the springtime when the sun comes out and the days are longer. The quail calling refers to the breeding season of quails in Alabama that starts calling to each other in early to mid-April. The drinking gourd was a hollowed out gourd that was used by slaves as a water dipper and in this song, was used as a symbol for the Big Dipper star formation that points to Polaris or also known as the North Star which never changes its position. The ole man is nautical slang for “Captain” and according to Parks, it refers to Peg Leg Joe, whom used to be a sailor (Bresler). The second verse describes how to follow the route from Mobile, Alabama to the North. The first river in the song is the Tombigbee River, which empties into Mobile Bay and its headwaters extend into northeastern Mississippi. Peg Leg Joe would use charcoal or mud and mark trees and other landmarks of a left foot and a circle indicating a peg foot as a communication tactic for runaways to lead them to the correct routes. Verse three describes the route through northeastern Mississippi and into Tennessee. The Tombigbee River ends near Woodall Mountain, which is a high point in Mississippi and was used as an ideal reference point. The river on the other side of Woodall Mountain is the Tennessee River that includes the Ohio River bordering Illinois on the left-hand side and on the right-hand side the river meanders back into northern Alabama, and in this case, runaways would want to be on the Ohio River. Lastly, verse four talks about the end of the route, when the Ohio River meets the Tennessee in Paducah, Kentucky, which is where Peg Leg Joe would meet them to lead them to freedom (Bresler).

Although the origin and context of this song is unclear, one thing to be certain of was that it was used during slavery before the Civil War to help slaves escape to the north. This period for African Americans was important because running away was a form of resistance towards slaveholders. From the challenges of family formation to the high mortality rates of children to the creation of slave codes, African Americans were using different forms of resistance, since revolting was rare, because slavery was like a total institution that made any type of organization and planning next to impossible. Slaves’ activities were closely monitored under the same authority, they were treated alike and required to do the same thing together, all phases of the day’s activities were tightly schedule leaving them no leisure time, and various enforced activities were brought together to fulfill the other claims of the institution (Goffman, 1961) (Pittman, 2015). Slave codes were one of the challenges that slaves faced during this time as well. Some of the codes include slaves being defined as property so slaveholders can do anything to them, slaves could only travel with a pass, they can’t buy/sell goods, they can’t carry armed power, can’t hire self out if they needed work, strict evening curfews, and death penalty for infractions. There were other mechanisms of white control that was used during this time, such as militias, local patrols, and patty rollers or slave patrols. Patty rollers were a group of 3-6 white men who disciplined slaves and runaways because punishments demonstrated the totalizing effects of white supremacy and to terrorize those who remained enslaved to not try to escape (Pittman, 2015).

Slave revolts were rare with respect to the kinds of way that slaves resisted because of brutal punishments, no access to weapons, and being on constant watch, but slaves’ resistance were frequent. Slaves were pushing back against coerced labor by: slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, sabotaging production, abusing livestock, stealing food, and committing arson, which was the most common form of resistance, next to death (killing whites). Running away was a trend that grew into the thousands and tens of thousands by the time of the Civil War. The punishments for if a slave were caught would have been whipping, branding, lynching, and/or severing of the Achilles tendon. Two important factors that helped aided runaways were through quilts and songs. When women quilt at home after working at the fields, they would put messages in quilting squares as a way to communicate with each other (Pittman, 2015). Follow the Drinking Gourd was actually the only map song to have survived and known today (Bresler). Songs were not only used as a guide for runaways, but also as a form of resistance in humanizing one another through the ill treatments of slave owners. One of the most famous women runaway was Harriet Tubman. She escaped in 1849 when her owner died and she was a refuge slave so she wasn’t going to be sold for much. She used the Underground Railroad and made between 13-19 trips back and forth and saved over 300 slaves. The Underground Railroad was a vast network of people, blacks and whites, which helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and Canada by providing shelter money, food, and money for other expenses for their journey. Other notable participants, besides Harriet Tubman, within the Underground Railroad were Levi Coffin and John Fairfield whom made many daring rescues to assist as many slaves as they could (Underground).

Follow the Drinking Gourd is a great example of resistance by slaves during slavery. Even though the history behind the song is a mystery, I’m glad that it is still being used today to teach kids about slavery because not everyone understands the true colors of slavery. Slaves were able to use songs as a way to humanize themselves and that already shows how strong minded they were instead of just committing suicide through the hardships of slavery. I’m just amazed at how songs that helped slaves escaped back then were not caught on by whites to catch runaways. A simple song like Follow the Drinking Gourd was able to help thousands of slaves escaped and refuge in safe havens. This just proved that blacks had a lot more potential back then than the whites gave them credit for.

 

Works Cited

 

Bresler, Joel. “What the Lyrics Mean.” Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History.

Joel Bresler, 2008. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

 

Pittman, LaShawnda (2015). Slavery and Resistance [Powerpoint Slides].

 

“The Underground Railroad.” PBS. WGBH Educational Foundation, 1998. Web. 20 Nov.

2015.

 

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