Lesson 1: Exploring “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

Aim: What is the hidden meaning in “Follow the Drinking Gourd”?

Students learn to sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and explore the hidden meaning of the song and the code found in the lyrics.

Musical Explorers CD or online audio, pencils


spirituals, Underground Railroad

Sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

    • Listen to “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Track 6.
    • Learn to sing the chorus using Track 7.

Literacy Extension

Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter tells the story of Captain Peg Leg Joe, who aids slaves on their escape on the Underground Railroad.

You can visit followthedrinkinggourd.org to learn more about “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold is the story of Cassie, who, with Harriet Tubman as her guide, retraces her family’s escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Explore the Hidden Meaning in “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

  • Listen to “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Track 6.

    • Besides the drinking gourd, what are some of the other clues hidden in the words of the song?
  • Sing along with the chorus, Track 7.

Follow the Drinking Gourd

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man1is a-waiting
For to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

Verse 1:
When the sun comes back2
And the first quail3 calls
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waiting
For to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.


Verse 2:
The riverbank makes a very good road
Dead trees4 will show you the way
Left foot, peg foot5 traveling on
If you follow the drinking gourd.


Verse 3:
The river ends between two hills
Follow the drinking gourd
There’s another river on the other side
If you follow the drinking gourd.


Verse 4:
I thought I heard the angels say
Follow the drinking gourd
The stars are in the Heavens
Gonna show you the wayI
If you follow the drinking gourd.


1 “The old man” is code for the Captain of the Underground Railroad.
2 “When the sun comes back” means when the days become longer in the spring.
3 “First quail” refers to the quail of Alabama who start calling to each other during mid-April.
4 “Dead trees” refers to the trees that the Captain would mark with the outline of a human foot along the journey.
5 “Left foot, peg foot” refers to Captain Peg Leg Joe, who helped slaves to escape, and was said to have one wooden leg.

Spirituals are songs originally sung by African-American slaves to express their emotions during times of difficulty. The songs have religious texts, and the music and lyrics were a source of comfort and inspiration to the slaves who sang them. Slaves often included hidden meanings in the songs, many times providing clues to help other slaves escape from captivity.

In the 19th century, the Underground Railroad helped slaves from the United States to escape to free states and Canada through a network of secret routes and safe houses. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” was a song used in the Underground Railroad to help give directions to the escaping slaves.

The “drinking gourd” was the name for a hollow gourd that the slaves would use to collect water. However, in this song, it is also a code name for the Big Dipper—a constellation of stars that helped escaping slaves figure out which direction to travel. Use SG16 to show your students a drinking gourd compared to the Big Dipper.

Create Your Own Code Messages

    • If you wanted to use code words to help someone find your school, which clues would you use?
  • On SG17, create an original verse for “Follow the Drinking Gourd” using these new secret directions for finding your school.
    • What is a code name for the playground? (e.g., the green creature)
    • What is a code name for your school building? (e.g., a giant fort)
    • What is a code name for the street? (e.g., a long trail)
    • What is a code name for the people inside? (e.g., laughing voices)
  • Share your work with the class by singing the new lyrics with Track 8.

Creative Extension: Follow the Sounds to Freedom

Set up four different types of instruments or sounds (e.g., tapping pencils, clapping, stomping, crinkling paper) throughout the learning space. Select four students to stand at each sound station. Instruct another group of students to stand in a line (the train) and close their eyes. The conductor of the train (the first person in line) will lead the train to the first sound, then the second sound, then the third sound, and finally the fourth sound, indicating freedom.

Musical Word Wall

Add the words spirituals and Underground Railroad to the Musical Word Wall.


PDF Downloads

SG16 ↓ Download File

SG17 ↓ Download File


Musical Explorers Audio Tracks



Go to Lesson 2: Learning “This Train Is Bound for Glory”