Follow the Drinking Gourd:
F.N. Monjo, The Drinking Gourd
The Drinking Gourd by F.N. (Ferdinand Nicholas) Monjo. Pictures by Fred Brenner. Harper & Row, 1970: New York, Evanston and London.
Lee Hays's Follow the Drinking Gourd lyrics appear at the beginning. The book references the song, but is not based on it.
The story is set in New England in late 1851. Young Tommy Fuller misbehaves in church and is sent home by his father, the church's deacon. When Tommy stops in the family barn, he discovers a family of runaway slaves – two parents, their boy (roughly his age) and a baby – hidden there by his father. The slaves have escaped from South Carolina and are following the drinking gourd (which Tommy knows as the Big Dipper) north to Canada.
When Tommy's father arrives home, he briefly explains the Underground Railroad, then hitches up the horses and hides the slaves in the wagon. When they arrive at a riverbank, Deacon Fuller steps away to look for a boat. US marshals arrive to search for the runaways. Thinking fast, Tommy says he is running away. The marshals advise him to go home and take his licking for misbehaving. Father returns and rows the slaves across the river. That night, father and son discuss the morality of disobeying unjust laws.
Notes for Parents and Teachers
An "I CAN READ" history book. Suitable for grades K through 2.
If this book is used to introduce children to the Underground Railroad, parents and teachers may want to explain that this is fiction, just one escape account out of many thousands, and depicts a series of unusual circumstances. Most slaves escaping from the Deep South did not head north. Most escaped alone; family groups were relatively unusual. (1)
The Carolinas were not on the Drinking Gourd route, which extends from Mobile Bay through northwestern Alabama, northeastern Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky to the Ohio River. Also, it would make little sense for a family who did cross over into freedom in southern Illinois to make their way to Canada via New England.
New York Times
Notable Children's Books of 1940–1970, American Library Association
Follow the Drinking Gourd, text and illustrations by Jeanette Winter, New York: Knopf, 1988.
Peg Leg Joe is presented as a resolute Underground Railroad conductor, posing as an itinerant carpenter. Joe "had a plan", working for the master by day, and teaching slaves the Drinking Gourd song by night. He would then slip away to do the same elsewhere. On one plantation, the slave James learns he has been sold and will be separated from his wife, Molly and son, Isaiah the next day. Molly and James hear a quail call that night, reminding them of the song. (Caveat: bobwhite quail do not call at night. See ) They set out immediately with Isaiah, as well as Hattie and her grandson George. They hide in the trees, listening for hounds. They follow the song, traveling at night, looking for Joe's marks on the trees lining the river. They brave hunger, beasts and patrollers.
En route, "...sometimes a kind deed was done. One day, as they hid in a thicket a boy from a farm found them. In a bag of feed for the hogs in the wood he brought bacon and corn bread to share." (3)
From the top of the two hills mentioned in the song, they see the new path. Continuing to follow the song as it leads them up the Tennessee River, they are reunited with Peg Leg Joe where it joins the Ohio River. He rows them across and explains the Underground Railroad. On the far shore, "Joe signaled low, with a hoot like an owl." (4)
The escapees are hidden in the barn of a nearby home, while Joe goes back to the river to await other runaways.
The next station is a Quaker farm. They drive the carriage themselves – unlikely in southern Illinois at that time. As they work their way north, one of their hosts is an urban black family – an accurate reference to the major role that blacks played in the Underground Railroad. At last they arrive at Lake Erie. Once safely on the Canadian shore, old Hattie cries out, "'Five more souls are safe!" (5)
The book beautifully melds the song directly into the flow of the story. The audio production features Tony and Drama Desk Awards award winner Ron Richardson narrating and singing all the parts; Arthur Custer was the arranger/composer. It's also extremely well done. On a personal note, this book and audio book were my introduction to the song.
LeVar Burton hosted a television show based on the song and the book.
Jeanette Winter says she "was a big fan of the Weavers in college and later, and so was familiar with the song." She writes, "A suggestion was made, I looked into it, and was off into the history of the Underground Railroad." (personal communication). She read Uncle Tom's Cabin, slave narratives and other reference works, looking to folk art as inspiration for the illustrations. (Mediagram, Follow the Drinking Gourd, Shelley Bedik, © SRA/McGraw-Hill. Part no. 87539570)
Notes for Parents and Teachers
Suitable for Preschool through Grade 2. If this book is used to introduce children to the Underground Railroad, parents and teachers may want to explain that this is fiction, just one escape account out of many thousands, and depicts a series of unusual circumstances. Most slaves escaping from the Deep South did not head north. Most escaped alone; family groups were relatively unusual. (1) Contact with Underground Railroad conductors in slave territory, especially in the Deep South, was extremely rare.
Parents should know that the lyrics of the song as presented were published by Lee Hays in 1947 and so could not have been sung by escaping slaves. The Hays version, particularly the line, "The old man is awaitin' for to carry you to freedom" conformed to the Underground Railroad mythology of the mid-20th century, where whites played a pre-eminent role and slave initiative counted for a distant second. Today one could argue that slaves who made it to and past the Ohio had already carried themselves to freedom and didn't need an old man to do it for them. See the last review below for more on the same subject.
Washington Post Book World
Booklist (starred review)
Kathleen T. Horning (Madison Public Library, Wisconsin) School Library Journal, Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Winner, Booklist Books for Youth Editors' Choice, 1988
Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies
Originally released on VHS. Rabbit Ears Productions: Rowayton, CT, 1992
Author: Bernardine Connelly, Illustrator: Yvonne Buchanan. Narrator: Morgan Freeman, Music: Taj Mahal)
Cassette and CD versions first published in 1993.
Book: Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997.
Other versions: book/CD combination. Another edition of the book was published by Abdo in 2004. A version may be forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.
Introduction: A quail calls in the night, bringing to mind Follow the Drinking Gourd. (Caveat: bobwhite quail do not call at night. See )
Story: 11-year old Mary Prentice, her mother and brother Samuel are enslaved on a cotton plantation outside Mobile, Alabama. Mary's father had been sold away five years earlier. Mary overhears other slaves on the plantation relate that her brother Samuel is soon to be sold. She sees a journeyman carpenter working away, and hears him sing a strange song, which turns out to be Follow the Drinking Gourd. Returning to her quarters, Mary repeats the song. Her mother silences her. She explains that the carpenter is Peg Leg Joe, an Underground Railroad agent, and that he had known her father. She shows Mary the "drinking gourd" star formation in the sky and explains the song.
The next day, her mother hands Mary a small whittled gourd to give Joe – a sign that the family is ready to flee. That night, the family runs away, making for the Tombigbee river. They find Peg Leg Joe's marks on the ground. After the marks run out, they travel on for days. Famished, they stop at a farm to ask for help from the slave quarters. An old man assists them, giving them a sack with food and pepper. He tells them the countryside has been alarmed and that they are being followed. A few days later, the escapees shake off the dogs using the pepper. (6) They continue on until they come to a riverfront town on the Tennessee.
A Quaker man assists them, taking them upriver hidden in a boat with a false bottom. (The book gets the song's geography wrong here, see the details below.) They once again find Peg Leg Joe's prints, and then Mary's Papa emerges from the trees. Papa leads the family to the cove where Peg Leg Joe and his boat await them. Joe rows them across the Ohio, to the next stage of their flight to freedom.
The author wrote, "The sources I drew from were those generally available to the public, primarily general interest books on the Underground Railroad...I was especially moved by the photos of Harriet Tubman."
There is no connection between this version and the other children's books. "I am an admirer of the Jeannette Winter book, but...had not seen (it) until after the R(abbit) E(ars) video was released."
The program aired several times on the Showtime cable network in 1993, and won a network award.
Notes for Parents and Teachers
Suitable for Grades 2 through 4. If this book is used to introduce children to the Underground Railroad, parents and teachers may want to explain that this is fiction, just one escape account out of many thousands, and depicts a series of unusual circumstances. Most slaves escaping from the Deep South did not head north. Most escaped alone; family groups were relatively unusual. (1) Contact with Underground Railroad conductors in slave territory, especially in the Deep South, was extremely rare.
Parents should know that the lyrics of the song as presented were published by Lee Hays in 1947 and so could not have been sung by escaping slaves. The Hays version, particularly the line, "The old man is awaitin' for to carry you to freedom" conformed to the Underground Railroad mythology of the mid-20th century, where whites played a pre-eminent role and slave initiative counted for a distant second. Today one could argue that slaves who made it to and past the Ohio had already carried themselves to freedom and didn't need an old man to do it for them.
The book gets the river systems' geography wrong, "As the song said, the river – the Tennessee – ends between two hills and there's another river on the other side." In fact, the river that ends between two hills is the Tombigbee. The book incorrectly inserts an overland section between the end of the Tennessee River journey and the runaways' arrival at the Ohio.
AudioFile (review of the audio version)
Worldfest Houston Gold Award, 1993
Pamela Dell, Aquila's Drinking Gourd
Aquila's Drinking Gourd, Pamela Dell, Tradition Books, 2003, Excelsior, MN
The book is set in western Virginia, in 1859. The protagonist, Aquila, is an 11-year-old slave. Aquila is auctioned and separated from her mother; her father had previously been sold South. Earlier he had explained how to navigate using the sun by day, and by the North Star by night. He taught her the Drinking Gourd song and gave her her own drinking gourd.
Aquila's new "owners" are the Brockett family. Upon arrival at the farm, she is held in a tiny cellar room under the house, where she remembers the song. Moss, a slave boy on the farm one or two years older than Aquila, rescues her and tells her an Underground Railroad conductor is coming that night to escort him to safety. The conductor, a huge white man nicknamed "Tiny", escorts them north of Charleston and on to the Ohio River, opposite Gallipolis, Ohio. There they are rowed across to freedom.
The book is handsomely done and takes the interesting approach of twinning a fictional narrative (by Ms. Dell) with historical content prepared by others. Unfortunately, the book is replete with errors, principally in the historical content. I highly discourage its use in schools or at home. My notes are below.
Notes for Parents and Teachers
This version of the song lyrics was first published in 1947 and could not have been sung by slaves. In fairness, many other references make the same mistake.
This $40,000 figure is more than the real estate value of most plantations of the time! It has been soundly debunked. According to this inflation calculator $40,000 in 1860 would be worth $821,706 in 2005 money.
Actually, she is posed with family and friends; she is not known to have helped any of them escape. (Source: Historian Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., author of Bound For The Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, personal communication.)
This is the wrong founding date for the PAS, which began in 1775 (Source.) I know of no evidence that Washington was a member – he actually wrote a letter castigating them in 1786 (Source.) Last, saying Washington didn't believe in slavery is quite a simplification of a very nuanced position: there were 316 slaves on his plantation at the time of his death (Source.)
The Drinking Gourd song outlines a route from Mobile, Alabama up the Tombigbee River to northeast Mississippi, over the divide to the Tennessee River and Tennessee, and then ending at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers at Paducah, Kentucky. Since the route's end point is nearly 400 miles from Charleston (mostly due west) it would have been no use navigationally for a slave in western Virginia. The book does acknowledge that the song had
Clues in the surviving verses that are not route-specific are limited to a suggestion to leave in the spring, and an exhortation to keep traveling north.
Of course, some birds do migrate, but not the bobwhite quail referred to in the Drinking Gourd song and pictured in the book. These quail are not migratory. In fairness, many other references make the same mistake.
This figure is wildly incorrect. The total was closer to 4 million in 1860 (Source) (James M. McPherson, The Negro's Civil War, New York: Pantheon Books, 1965, Appendix A.)
The first blacks to arrive in the colonies, at Jamestown, were indentured servants. (Source)
What about other border states, such as Iowa, Indiana, Illinois? And the states north of them?
Seemingly contradicted by the text three pages later:
In any event, the correct date is July, 1860 and the correct spelling is the "Clotilda". (Source: Michael Thomason, "From the Archives: Researching a Legend", Gulf South Historical Review 15 [Fall 1999], pp. 102-106.)
The several hundred figure is inaccurate; the true figure is closer to 70. In fairness, many other references make the same mistake. (Source)
The caption under the poster on page 7 is intended for the poster on page 35, and vice versa.
Copyright 2008 - 2012, Joel Bresler.