Follow the Drinking Gourd:
3:30 p.m.

The show is online, but we replace everything before dg17 with a live performance. Everything from dg17 on is played from the DVD or VCR tape. (The DVD picture and sound degraded halway through on February 3, 2007.) Our live segment show is not simply a talk-through version of the first half, but it does cover a lot of the same material.

The last words that we skip are “Good, the Big Dipper. A long time ago, this constellation was important to a special group of children.” The first words that we play are “Two hundred years ago, black children who lived in the southern United States were slaves.”


  1. Sound board: sliders up for cassette tape, CD, DVD or VCR, and output.

  2. Cassette tape: load “Follow the Drinking Gourd” tape and rewind. Used only for sunset; run by Spice computer.

  3. CD player: load “Follow the Drinking Gourd Entrance Music” in extra-slim case.

  4. Video projector: input select line 1, monitor select line 1 to enable DVD or VCR. Brightness and contrast up.

  5. DVD: If you are playing the show from the DVD, get the new (2007) DVD of the video segment under the Zeiss console. You will see the titles “Martin Marietta and the Friends of the New Jersey State Museum Present…”. Press 3 on the DVD remote to go directly to “Two hundred years ago, Black children who lived in the Southern United States were slaves”. To set up for the show, press 3 and then immediately pause it by pressing press PLAY/PAUSE on the front of the DVD.

  6. VCR: If you are playing the show from the VCR, plug it into input line 1 of video projector and turn off the show DVD. Load “Follow the Drinking Gourd” tape in black case, labels up and out. Fast forward to 5:10, just after “Good, the Big Dipper. A long time ago, this constellation was important to a special group of children.” It’s at 4:54 in this sound file. Or fast forward directly to the song at 11:03.

  7. XP computer: if you want to use it, plug it into input line 2 of video projector.

  8. Zeiss:

  9. Spice computer: load FDGOURD.CUE, wait at 25 RUN.

  10. Audience entry sequence.

The show

The show is about how enslaved people in the South used the Big Dipper to find their way north. It focuses on two things: the experience of the enslaved Africans and the use of the sky to find directions. Emphasize these whenever possible.

The enslaved people called the Big Dipper the “Drinking Gourd”. It is also known as a camel (North Africa), a bear, a bear and three hunters (Daughter of the Stars), a wagon, a plough… Strictly speaking, it’s not a constellation but an asterism, i.e., an easy-to-recognize group of stars. Although it’s in the northern sky, the North Star is not part of the asterism.

The show is 20–25 minutes of talk, 20–25 minutes of VCR.

Star talk section (day): a mini Sky Tonight

  1. Before pressing down arrow to turn the sky blue, Marc usually does a brief bit with the stylized Big Dipper stars which are part of the entrance title slide. Just enough to introduce the idea of playing “connect-the-dots” with the stars, and to see if they can see a “dipper” in those stars.

    Then, as in The Sky Tonight, you down-arrow to take off the title slide, turn the sky blue, and bring up the clouds. Top it all off by turning on the sun on the meridian. Talk about where the sun is in the sky “now”, i.e., in the winter.

  2. Stop with the summer sun high in the sky.

  3. If the enslaved people has started traveling northward when the summer sun was high in the sky, by the time they got to the north (move sun down) the winter sun would be low as they slogged through the northern woods.

  4. So it’s the right time of year but not the right time of day. Set the sun.

  5. Steppers:

Star talk section (night)

  1. Down arrow through sunset. Marc likes to talk about the African traditions and knowledge connected to the sky: the Zodiac, for example (all around the Mediterranean, found in Egyptian paintings and carvings)

  2. Mention that the hour is still early, and to travel in secret you would have to wait until later. Diurnal motion to later.

  3. The last thing you do before running the video is show Orion (all-sky, not the universal projector). Marc mentions a few African tie-ins: stars with Arabic names from North Africa, Sirius and the Egyptians, Pegasus (and that cadre) and Eritria/Ethiopea, etc. The date of the heliacal rising of Sirius, the first day it could be glimsped in the predawn sky, was a sign that the Nile was about to flood. Talk about the Zodiac.

  4. It is now the right time of year and the right time of night, but everyone is still facing the wrong direction. Zeiss azimuth motion until North is in front.

  5. Ask everyone to find the Drinking Gourd.

  6. Now that it’s the right time of year and the right time of night and everyone is facing the right way, it’s time to head north. So let’s hear the story of some people who did just that.

Video section

  1. Play the DVD or VCR, starting with sound up and image down. Start the DVD by pressing PLAY/PAUSE on the front of the DVD. Fade the video up slowly—people have been in the dark for half an hour.

  2. You will hear “Two hundred years ago, black children who lived in the southern United States were slaves.”

  3. Sit and watch the show. There is nothing else to do until you down-arrow to bring up the sunrise. You can leave the stars on, or turn them off when the story proper begins.

  4. Fade down the video at “They had followed the Drinking Gourd”. You can leave the VCR music on (it plays over the credits), or play the exit music below.

  5. As the end music plays, down-arrow to run the sunrise section of the show (the last part). Azimuth the Zeiss so north is behind and gradually fade out the stars.

  6. You may want to mention

  7. Suggested exit music: track 3 on the entrance music CD or track 3 on the Smithsonian Folkways CD, This Little Light of Mine.


Start at 5:05.

Two hundred years ago, black children who lived in the southern United States were slaves. It was bad to be a slave. Being a slave meant you belonged to a white person, called the master. Slaves had to do exactly what the master said to do. A slave had to live where the white person lived. A slave couldn’t go anywhere without permission. Children who were slaves didn’t get to go to school or get to play. They had to work. Sometimes they didn’t get enough food or enough warm clothing. Much worse, they were sometimes beaten. These children could even be sold to another master, and sent away from their parents. They had no freedom to decide things for themselves. Being a slave was a horrible way of life.

Many slaves ran away. If they could run away as far north as Canada, they were free, and they could decide for themselves how to live their lives. Slaves that escaped had to walk all the way to Canada. They traveled at night, so that no one could find them.

It was a dangerous and long trip. They used the Big Dipper to guide them on the trip. Because they knew that the Big Dipper was in the northern sky, they knew that if they walked stright towards the dipper, the would be walking north, towards Canada.

The slaves in Alabama and Mississippi taught their children a special song about the Big Dipper. The song explained how to use the Big Dipper to escape to freedom. The song starts like this.


When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.


The slaves had noticed something about the sun. In December, at noon, the sun is here in the sky. One month later, in January, the sun is here. In February, it is here. During the winter and spring, the sun is a little higher and higher in the sky each day at noon. In the summer and fall, the sun is lower and lower in the sky at noon. The words “when the sun comes back” mean the winter, when the sun is higher in the sky each day at noon.

Quail are birds that live in Canada in the summer and fall. In winter, they move to the southern United States. So every year slave children living in the south heard the quail call in winter.

When the slaves looked at the Big Dipper, they pretended to see a drinking gourd. A drinking gourd is a gourd that can be made into a cup. Slaves made drinking cups from gourds, and they called the Big Dipper the drinking gourd. “Follow the drinking gourd” means “walk toward the Big Dipper”. So this part of the song told the slaves to escape in the winter. In the winter the sun is coming back, or rising higher in the sky, and the quail are calling.

Listen to the next part of the song.


For the old man is a’waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.


These lines told the escaping slaves that if they continued to walk toward the drinking gourd, they would eventually meet an old man who would help them escape.

The song continues


The riverbank will make a very good road,
The dead trees show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on,
Follow the drinking gourd.


These lines told the slaves to follow the riverbank of the Tombigbee River, watching for dead trees that had on them two drawings, one of a left foot, and one of a peg leg. Following the river, watching for these drawings on dead trees, and walking toward the drinking gourd, lead north to freedom. 9:42.