Lesson 2: Exploring “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

Aim: What is the hidden meaning in “Follow the Drinking Gourd”?
Summary: Students explore the hidden meaning of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and create secret directions for finding their own school.
Materials: Musical Explorers CD or online audio, Musical Explorers Student Guide
Time required: 30 minutes (two 15-minute activities)
Standards: US 1, 2, 3.1, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 6, 7.1, 8, 9, 10, 11; GA 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9; SC 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Vocabulary: Underground Railroad, gourd

Sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

  • Listen to “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Track 32.
  • Learn to sing the chorus of the song using Track 33.

Explore the Hidden Meaning in “Follow the Drinking Gourd”

  • Listen to “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Track 32.
  • Besides the drinking gourd, what are some of the other clues hidden in the words of the song?
  • Focus on any musical opposites (e.g., dynamics or pitch opposites) that you hear in the song, and sing along with the chorus, Track 33.

Follow the Drinking Gourd

Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man1
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 riverbed 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 way
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 again to the Captain, Peg Leg Joe, who helped slaves to escape, and was said to have one wooden leg.?

In Unit 1, we learned that the ring shout was sung by slaves in the United States. Slaves also often wrote songs that had hidden meanings. Many times these songs provided 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.

Creative Extension: Create Your Own Code Messages

    • If you wanted to use code words to help someone find your school, which clues would you use?
  • On SG35, 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)
  • On SG36, draw pictures of important landmarks around your school and use your code words to mark these places on the map.

Literacy Link

“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.”

Musical Word Wall

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

PDF Downloads

SG35 ↓ Download File
SG36 ↓ Download File