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Underground Railroad Research Forum

Re: Follow the Drinking Gourd
In Response To: Re: Follow the Drinking Gourd ()

The knowledge of the north star as a guide north was fairly wide-spread before the Civil War. Its a very basic navigation tool.

That some fugitives knew about and used the north star in their travels is well documented in the fugitive slave narratives. Northern abolitionists also used the north star as a symbol of liberty-- that was the name Frederick Douglass used for his newspaper in Rochester.

The song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" is known from one source-- collected by a folklorist in Texas in the 1920s. He said he had also heard the lyrics elsewhere. While it would be nice to have other evidence of the song's use, it is not at all unusual for a specific piece of folklore to come from a single informant. The lyrics to "Go Down Moses" can't, as far as I know, be traced back further than 1861, when a (white) minister heard them in Virginia.

I don't think we can discount information just because there is only a single source. Two or three separate sources would be better, but not always obtainable.

Whether the specific story that went along with the lyrics is correct or not is more of a problem. H.B. Parks, the man who collected the song in the 1920s, was the one who connected the lyrics to a particular person and place. This seems to be more in the realm of speculation than fact. I'm reasonable confident that there is an historical basis for "Follow the Drinking Gourd" but not confident that it can be linked to a particular time and place.


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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