An alternative name for this song is "Follow De Drinkin' Gou'd", which might incline one to think it is either a coon song or a drinking ditty after the fashion of "The Maine Stein Song
", in fact it is neither, rather it is a map song with its roots in the anti-slavery movement.
The story of what is perhaps the most famous of American anti-slavery songs is related in Follow the Drinking Gourd
by H.B. Parks, which begins at page 81 of Follow de Drinkin' Gou'd
, a 1928 publication of the Texas Folk-Lore Society.
Harris Braley Parks (1879-1958) said he first heard the song when he was in North Carolina in 1912; it was sung by a young Negro boy, which prompted his grandfather to whack him on the back with his cane. When he asked the old man why he'd done this, he was told only that singing the song brought bad luck. About a year later he heard a black fisherman in Louisville singing the same refrain. The response he elicited from this man was even more disappointing. Then, in 1918 he heard the same song sung by two black youths at Waller, Texas. They were accompanying themselves on the violin and banjo, but the refrain was "Foller the Risen Lawd". This time his inquiry was more fruitful; he was told the new stanzas had been composed by a Revivalist for his meetings.
Later still, Parks met an elderly Negro in Texas who had known many slaves, and who told him the background to the song. Before the American Civil War, a one-legged sailor would turn up on Southern plantations seeking work as a painter or carpenter. He would stay only a short time, during which he would teach the slaves the song, and mark out a map for them. The following spring, nearly all the young males would disappear and make their way North to Canada and freedom.
Parks' family had been active in the Underground Railroad, and one of his great-uncles identified the sailor from the records of the Anti-Slavery Society as Peg Leg Joe. He had made his last trip in 1859, though due to the secretive native of the Society, little or nothing was known about him.
Some of the verses of the song had been lost or because of their secretive meaning were unintelligible, but the drinkin' gou'd referred to the Great Dipper, "the grea' big un" was the Ohio, and the wise man alluded to was Peg Leg Joe himself.