To Spill a Drinking Gourd

When I was a young boy, my grandma used to sing me the song of the drinking gourd ... which went:

The river bank makes a mighty good road
Dead trees will show you the way
Left foot, peg foot, travelin' on
Follow the drinkin' gourd

The gourd, she explained, was a hollowed out vegetable shell used by slaves to dip water from a well or stream. During the Civil War, however, the song was coded instructions by the Underground Railroad to guide slaves escaping to the North. No doubt they carried such drinking vessels, but the dipper they knew to “follow” was the Big Dipper in the sky which points always at the North Star... the way they must go. The Big Dipper was the hand of God leading them, so the dipper was sacred to them, both above and below. And so grandma said, “It’ s a sin to spill a drinking gourd.”

As a lad, I was thrilled by the tale and asked grandma if she had more stories of the South and slavery. Indeed she did and gave me a book from her library written by a woman named Harper ... Harper Lee.

I read it with great amazement and pleasure as did many of my schoolmates back then, but only years later ... long after she was gone ... did it dawn on me that grandma may have added a bit of her own whimsy to the tale.