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Ask Rufus: Follow the Drinking Gourd


A tintype photograph of slave Aunt Kinzie, taken in Columbus around 1860. She was the cook for Dr. Cornelius Hardy at his Northside home, now known as Magnolia Hill.

A tintype photograph of slave Aunt Kinzie, taken in Columbus around 1860. She was the cook for Dr. Cornelius Hardy at his Northside home, now known as Magnolia Hill. Photo by: Courtesy Photo


Rufus Ward



Recently there have been several television programs on the Underground Railroad. That was the network established in antebellum times to help escaping slaves make their way to freedom. 


Did a branch of the Underground Railroad reach into our area? There were a few people in Lowndes County who were openly opposed to slavery but there is no record of any other activities. There is, however, some musical folklore that may answer that question. 


"Follow the Drinking Gourd" is an old African-American spiritual that is said to be a verbal road map for slaves escaping from the Tombigbee River Valley north of Mobile, Ala. Although, there is some question as to whether or not the song actually was associated with the Underground Railroad, it has through recordings, books and tradition become a part of the story. 


There are several versions of the song. The most popular was recorded by Lee Hays in 1947 and begins: 


When the sun comes back and the first quail calls, 


Follow the Drinking Gourd. 


For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom, 


If you follow the Drinking Gourd. 


This verse seems to say that in the spring when the quail start to nest it is the time to leave and to follow the drinking gourd or North Star. If you head north then there will be help along the way.  


The key language of the other verses which always end with "follow the drinking gourd" say: 


The river bank makes a very good road, 


The dead trees show you the way, 


Left foot, peg foot, traveling on 


The banks of the Tombigbee River will be the road and dead trees along the river bank will be marked with symbols of a left foot and a peg foot. One of the legends is that the route was marked by a man called "Peg Leg" Joe. 


The river ends between two hills, 


Follow the Drinking Gourd. 


There''s another river on the other side, 


The headwaters of the Tombigbee are in the hills of southern Tishomingo County. Across those hills still traveling north one finds the Tennessee River. The "road" continued north along that river. 


Where the great big river meets the little river, 


For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom if you 


follow the Drinking Gourd. 


At Paducah, Ky., the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio River. Across the Ohio River was freedom and there would be someone there to help the escaping slaves to safety. 


Today the Adventure Cycling Association promotes a 2,100-mile bicycle trail from Mobile, Ala., to Ontario, Canada, following the route of the Underground Railroad as described in "Follow the Drinking Gourd." Among the not-to-miss historic highlights listed along the trail are two Columbus sites, the Missionary Union Baptist Church and the archives of the Columbus Library. 


And yes, I have met people bicycling through Columbus following the Drinking Gourd Trail. 



Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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