Tomlinson Lake Hike To Freedom

"North Americas Northernmost Route of the Underground Railroad"

Codes & Lyrics

Many songs were used as coded messages to communicate among slaves and abolitionists so that slave owners would not understand the meaning. Some songs were signals to let slaves know when the coast was clear or if  it was safe to come out of hiding. Others were map songs, to give directions or landmarks ahead.
Photo by Joe Gee
Follow the Drinking Gourd is an example of a map song.  It has several references to help guide escaping slaves from Mobile, Alabama to freedom to the North.  The 'drinking gourd' mentioned in the song is a coded reference to the Little Dipper.
The Little Dipper constellation ends with the North Star in its handle. It is widely excepted that the little dipper is shaped like a drinking gourd and 
served as a reminder of where they were headed ingeneral, more than a 
specific direction of travel.

Follow The Drinking Gourd

Wait until the sun goes back, or until it is dark. In April the quails in Alabama start their mating calls, so this liely told them not to try this in the winter.
When the sun goes back 
and the first quail calls 
Follow the drinking gourd 
The old man is a-waitin’  
to carry you to freedom 
Follow the drinking gourd

The river bed makes a mighty fine road, 
Dead trees to show you the way 
And it’s left foot, peg foot, traveling on 
Follow the drinking gourd

The river ends between two hills 
Follow the drinking gourd 
There’s another river on the other side 
Follow the drinking gourd

I thought I heard the angels say 
Follow the drinking gourd 
The stars in the heavens 
gonna show me the way 
Follow the drinking gourd
"The Old Man" was used often in coded messages, referring to Peg Leg Joe.  He was a persona created to unify codes and markers to follow.  Peg Leg Joe was known as a river boat 
captain and a carpenter depending on the context.
This verse no doubt references a boat ride up the Tombigbee River, then further travel by land.  Tree markings were 
extensively used and part of the Peg Leg Joe legend, and is 
clearly referenced here.  See the box: Tree Markings
These are hints to landmarks to come. Many songs served as a kind of map.  From a certain vantage point, the Tombigbee River's head appears to begin between the twin cones of Woodall Mountian.  On the other side of the mountain is the Tennessee River.   

Tree Markings

In the legends of Peg Leg Joe, it was known that he would make markings on 
trees to show directions. These had to be very well hidden yet clearly 
understood by those considered fugitives.  The following was related by 
Addison Coffin, a cousin of the well-known abolitionist Levi Coffin:
"From the starting point in North Carolina to the great turnpike in Virginia the Underground 
Railroad was built, constructed, or marked, as we call it, by driving nails in trees, fences, and 
stumps. Where there was a fork in the road there was a nail driven in a tree three and half feet from the ground half way round from front to back, if the right hand road was to be taken the 
nail was driven on the right hand side, if the left was the road the nail was to the left. If there 
were fences and no tree, the nail was driven in the middle of the second rail from the top, over on the inside of the fence, to the right, or left as in the trees...When a fugitive started on the 
road they were instructed into the mystery, when they came to a fork in the road, they would 
go to the nearest tree put their arms round and rub downwards, which ever arm struck the 
nail, right or left, that was the road, and they walked right on with no mistake..."
Addison Coffin, Early Settlement of Friends in North Carolina: Traditions and Reminiscences, North Carolina Friends Historical Society, 1952 (unpublished typescript, Friends Historical Collection, Guilford College) p. 123