History of "The Drinking Gourd"
During the era of slavery in the United States, many slaves fled to freedom in the North. In order to reduce the numbers of escaping slaves owners kept slaves illiterate and totally ignorant of geography. Owners even went so far as to try to keep slaves from learning how to tell directions. Their attitude is demonstrated by a statement from one of the overseers in "Roots":
"I don't take to nigga's off the plantation. This way they don't know which way is east, which way it is to the west. Once they have figured where someplace else is-next thing you know, they'll know which way is the north."
Nonetheless, slaves knew perfectly well freedom lay to the north, and they knew how to locate north. They used the North Star, or as it is more correctly named, Polaris. Polaris lies almost directly north in the sky. Slaves fled using the simple direction "walk towards the North Star." However, unable to plan a route, they risked walking into impassable or dangerous terrain.
Members of the Underground Railroad were fully aware of the predicament of fleeing slaves. About 1831 the Railroad began to send travelers into the South to secretly teach slaves specific routes they could navigate using Polaris. By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, about 500 people a year were traveling in the South teaching routes to slaves, and well established escape routes had been established. Scholars estimate that 60,000 to 100,000 slaves successfully fled to freedom.
Polaris became a symbol of freedom to slaves as well as a guide star. As soon as they were old enough to understand, slave children were taught to locate Polaris by using the stars of the Big Dipper.
Slaves passed the travel instructions from plantation to plantation by song. Slaves brought from the tribal cultures of Africa the custom of creating songs to transmit factual information. In America slaves turned song into codes that secretly transmitted information they wished to keep from whites.
"Follow the Drinking Gourd" is a coded song that gives the route for an escape from Alabama and Mississippi. Of all the routes out of the Deep South, this is the only one for which the details survive. The route instructions were given to slaves by an old man named Peg Leg Joe. Working as an itinerant carpenter, he spent winters in the South, moving from plantation to plantation, teaching slaves this escape route. Unfortunately, we know nothing more about Peg Leg Joe.