Follow the Drinking Gourd

Follow the Drinking Gourd

by Jeanette Winter

“For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom if you follow the drinking gourd.”

It sounded like a simple folk song sung by slaves, but it was really a map to freedom – for hidden in the lyrics were directions to the escape route known as the Underground Railroad. In glowing paintings that evoke the American folk tradition and a simple text inspired by slave narratives, Jeanette Winter tells the story of one brave family who followed the drinking gourd – The Big Dipper – north to liberation.

A Note from the First Lady

Dear Read20 Book Club families,

February is African American History Month, an observance in the United States wherein we pay tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society. This month, we especially honor the accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history. This book by Jeanette Winter tells the story of a special folk song called “Follow the Drinking Gourd” that was significant in black history, as it helped many African American slaves escape to freedom by hiding directions to the Underground Railroad in the lyrics.

It is so important for us to study history and to learn from the past, because it helps us to better understand why and where we are now, to learn from our mistakes and to help us make decisions about the future. While this story is only one way out of many that slaves used to escape, it can tell us much about what many slaves had to experience and how they might have felt. As you read through the story and listen to the song, take a moment to consider the hardships that these men and women had to face, both working as slaves and navigating their path to escape.

Keep up the great reading!

Crissy Haslam

First Lady of Tennessee


Fun Family Activities

1. Communication Tools: There are many different ways to communicate, or pass information from one person to the next! This story specifically hides a message in the folk song so that slave owners would not be aware their slaves were trying to escape. How might you choose to hide a message if you needed to? Pretend you have hidden a toy in your house and you want to tell your brother or sister where it is without telling your parents where the toy is. How would you do it? What words or codes might you use to convey your information?

2. Significant History: Harriet Tubman is known as one of the heroes of the Underground Railroad. She helped thousands of men and women escape to freedom from slavery. Read more about Harriet Tubman and write a poem or story about what her life might have looked like.

3. Science Connection: Astronomy is the study of the stars, other celestial objects and our solar system. The “drinking gourd” in the song actually refers to the constellation of stars we know as the Big Dipper. It helped travelers find their way because it showed them the Little Dipper and the North Star, also known as Polaris, is located on the tip of it and points in the direction of North. What do you think happened on cloudy nights? What can you learn from other constellations? Why do scientists recognize constellations as important in planetary studies?

4. Further Reading: If you enjoyed this book, author Jeanette Winter has written many fictional and nonfictional stories that you might like to check out from the library during your next visit. Visit your local library to check out Nasreen’s Secret School, The World is Not a Rectangle or Henri’s Scissors. If you are interested in reading more about the Underground Railroad, you might like Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, Let It Shine by Andrea Davis Pinkney, or I am Harriet Tubman by Grace Norwich.