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All About Slavery Songs

slavery songs

Is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” a familiar line to you? Did you know it was written during the Civil War by a former slave? You may be surprised to learn that many old familiar songs were written by or for slaves, and that many of the lyrics have double meanings that relate to slavery.

Slaves would sing songs as a way to communicate with other slaves or with “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. Because the lyrics were seemingly innocent, plantation owners and overseers had no way of knowing that slaves might be planning on running away or plotting to revolt. Slavery songs were also an excellent form of communication because many slaves could not read or write–it was illegal at that time to teach a slave to read or write.

Take a look at the lyrics from “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and see if you can discern the slave-related meanings behind the lyrics:

When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls
Follow the Drinking Gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd

The riverbank makes a very good road.
The dead trees will show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot, travelling 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.

When the great big river meets the little river
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

Need a hint? An old man, Peg Leg Joe, taught this song to slaves as a guide to freedom in the North. And the drinking gourd? That’s the Big Dipper. Learn more about the double meaning behind “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and other slavery songs.

Check out Flocabulary’s song “Ghosts of the Civil War”. In it, Harriet Tubman also mentions following the “drinking gourd” as a beacon to guide slaves to freedom.

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