Follow the Drinking Gourd: Home Page


Follow the Drinking Gourd:
A Cultural History


About This Site

And the mysterious tune affected him like a charm.
It possessed and troubled him ceaselessly.

Frances Gaither, Follow the Drinking Gourd

Why a Drinking Gourd Website?

I first read Jeanette Winter's Follow the Drinking Gourd picture book in the summer of 2004. My family (which then included two elementary school students) next heard the audiobook version. I shared the book with my parents-in-law, both of them serious map collectors and strong supporters of the University of Southern Maine. Educational outreach is one of the chief missions of their Osher Map Library. They in turn passed the book along to the Library staff, who are always seeking ways to make geographic learning appealing to elementary school students.

As the Library considered programming built around the song, I began to feel responsible. I decided to learn more and, as an amateur discographer, figured it would also take me about two weeks to prepare a discography. I was sure that there would be 78s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers or other early recording artists, along with printed versions in old songbooks such as Slave Songs of the United States. I was stunned that the earliest recording was by the Weavers in 1951 and that the earliest print account dated to 1928. My curiosity piqued, I launched into an effort, still underway, to try to understand the song and its cultural history.

I examined Lee Hays' papers at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, did some additional primary research at the Boston Public Library, imposed mightily on the capable reference staff at the local Cary Memorial Library (Lexington, MA), and generally contacted everyone I thought might know something about the song. This site is the result.

About the Author

Joel Bresler is an accomplished executive and entrepreneur with exceptional experience leading corporations and new ventures in business development and general management. Key past accomplishments include business development for best-selling electronic media and software products. Joel co-founded two firms sold to public companies, including one to Microsoft.

He is currently the Director of Commercialization at Northeastern University, where he manages commercialization and business development activities for the Center for Research Innovation, licensing the University’s inventions to existing businesses and spin-out companies. His portfolio includes nanotechnology, medical devices, cleantech, robotics, catalysts, Homeland Security, advanced materials and the life sciences.

His other musical research site may be found at and his personal site is
Contact him at:


New York Times, February 2, 2007

Research from this site was used in an Op-ed piece entitled History's Tangled Threads by Fergus M. Bordewich on February 2, 2007. Please see here for the full article. An excerpt:

Popular songs associated with the underground rarely withstand scrutiny, either. Recent research has revealed that the inspirational ballad "Follow the Drinking Gourd" — perhaps the single best-known "artifact" of the Underground Railroad — was first published in 1928, and that much of the text and music as we know it today was actually composed by Lee Hays of the Weavers in 1947. Nor do its "directions" conform to any known underground route.

Tuscaloosa News, February 11, 2007

Editorial Director Ben Windham mentioned this site in a detailed column February 11, 2007 in the Tuscaloosa News, Looking for the truth about the Confederate era. An excerpt:

Bresler may take some flak himself, but I like his approach. Even though his work points to the song as a post-Civil War creation, he doesn't call anyone a fake or a con artist.

The myths die hard, he acknowledges. Yet, Bresler asks, who needs myths? The real story of the song that he documents on his Web site is fascinating enough.

Please see here for the full article. My earlier correspondence with Windham is detailed here.

Dome-L, February 21, 2007

In light of the research presented here, the Planetarium community re-evaluated its popular show, Follow the Drinking Gourd. A letter from the coordinator of the Andrus Planetarium at the Hudson River Museum to the Dome-L mailing list (for planetarium professionals) kicked off the discussion with an anecdote about "a revolt of audience members":

Date: Wed, 21 Feb 2007
From: "Marc Taylor" <>
Subject: Questioning Follow the Drinking Gourd.

Many of a program about the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which purports to be a coded song about how slaves used the stars to find their way North. Again, the truth behind the story seems much sparser than it is often stated to be, but it gives us the chance to talk about the solstices and equinoxes, constellations versus asterisms, star names and lore from Africa, the North Star and wayfinding.

However, this last weekend we had a patron lead a revolt of audience members who protested that the show was "irresponsible" in its presentation of the story. This comes as a controversy is brewing about a memorial to Fredrick Douglass in Harlem which includes quilt patterns which are supposed, also, to be coded messages. So revisionism is in the air. After looking into things a little more, I'm starting to agree that Follow the Drinking Gourd is not what it appears to be...In any case, at the HRM we've decided to re-evaluate the show. Wanted to know what all of you have been doing related to this.

Marc Taylor, March 13, 2007

Eric Enge posted an analysis of how this site is presented by the three major search engines, Google, Yahoo and MSN.  Essentially, Yahoo and MSN are quicker to showcase new material, while Google lags behind. You can see more discussion on what this site demonstrates about search engines here. 

Underground Railroad Free Press, May, 2007

It seems only fair to print the pans along with the praise. Editor Peter H. Michael dissed and dismissed this site, writing:

Joel Bresler posits a case that the song did not exist in Underground Railroad times since he can not find written proof that it did.

James Rucker, leading Underground Railroad musicologist, counters, "In researching the Underground Railroad, we have to use intuition. Most escapees were illiterate, and it's absurd to think a secret organization would keep written records."

I replied, in a Letter to the Editor that went unpublished:

Thank you for mentioning my website, in your May, 2007 issue. I know it can be difficult to condense a lengthy website and three years of research into one line, but I never said "that the song did not exist in Underground Railroad times" just because I "can not find written proof that it did." The Drinking Gourd mythology afoot today – that the song as we know it was sung by a large number of escaping slaves – is simply not true. I invite your readers to visit the site and draw their own conclusions.

As for Mr. Rucker's comments, it will be hard to have a fruitful discussion about the Drinking Gourd song, Quilt Code or other Underground Railroad topics if intuition is allowed to trump research. The Drinking Gourd song as performed and recorded today by Mr. Rucker and most other artists could not possibly have been sung by escaping slaves, since the lyrics and arrangement were first written and published by Lee Hays in 1947.

Rucker's contention about the absurdity of researching the Underground Railroad comes up repeatedly in the field. In his February 2, 2007 New York Times Op-Ed piece cited above, Fergus Bordewich directly challenges the

premise that the operations of the Underground Railroad were so secret that the truth is essentially unknowable. In fact, there is abundant documentation of the underground's activities to be found in antebellum antislavery newspapers, narratives of escape written by former slaves and the recollections of participants recorded after the Civil War, when there was no longer danger of reprisal., May 30, 2007

Eric Enge updated his analysis of this site in his By the Numbers column, here. Eric focused on Google's performance ranking this site, some interesting Google search bugs I unearthed, and how long it took MSN to drop stale pages at other sites., June 15, 2007

I uploaded a detailed blog entry on Google search bugs uncovered while researching and publishing this site. Read the posting and responses here.

2007 Yearbook for Traditional Music

This website was reviewed by Cheryl. A. Tobler. The reviewer particularly liked the Appendices and how they might be used for teaching purposes:

This website is an excellent example of the possibilities and value of in-depth research of folksongs for teaching purposes...quality research into a folksong's history can affect and influence other subject areas, such as history, African-American studies, music, English, folklore, and even astronomy.

She also rightly noted that I still need to add a bibliography and better citations. (In the meantime, please contact me if you need any such information not yet published on the site.) The review closed by saying the website showed the

...importance of historical exploration into the sometimes murky origins of popular folksongs, especially those that have been given symbolic status.

Author's Acknowledgements

I thank Northern Kentucky University's Institute for Freedom Studies, Ohio University's Department of African American Studies, Professor Kate Larson of the History Department at Simmons College and The Underground Railroad History Project for the opportunity to present earlier versions of this work.

I thank Professor Larson, Leigh Fellner, Dr. Nkeiru Okoye and Professor Eliot Singer for reviewing and commenting. Any errors are mine.


This site is dedicated to my children Abigail and Matthew who introduced me to Follow the Drinking Gourd and to my wife, Dr. Judith A. Osher, for her unwavering support. 

Drinking Gourd author in front of the Riley House, MD

The author in front of the Riley House in Bethesda, Maryland where Josiah Henson (the model for Uncle Tom) was enslaved.

Follow the Drinking Gourd: Home Page


Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.
All Rights Reserved.