Lesson Plan: Overview

Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd

How Spirituals Helped Slaves Escape on the Underground Railroad

Grade Level: 5th

Follow the Drinkin Gourd Song Sheet

Academic Standards

South Carolina Music Standard

IX. Relating to history and culture. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

A. Listen to examples of music from various historical periods/world cultures and identify pieces by genre or style.

B. Describe how elements of music are used in music examples from various cultures of the world.

C. Identify various uses of music in daily experiences and describe the characteristics that make a particular type of music suitable for each.

D. Identify and describe roles of musicians in various music settings and cultures.

E. Demonstrate audience behavior appropriate for the content and style of music performed.

National Music Standards

IV. Understanding dance as a way to create and communicate meaning.

VII. Evaluating music and music performances.

VIII. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

A. Identify by genre or style aural examples of music from various historical periods and cultures.

B. Describe in simple terms how elements of music are used in music examples from various cultures of the world.

C. Identify various uses of music in their daily experiences and describe characteristics that make certain music suitable for each use.

D. Identify and describe roles of musicians in various music settings and cultures.

E. Demonstrate audience behavior appropriate for the content and style of music performed.

National Dance Standards

IV. Understanding dance as a way to create and communicate meaning.

VII. Evaluating music and music performances.

Literacy Elements

A. Reading - words to songs as well as descriptions of songs in students' music book.

B. Writing - using a journal page of thoughts, feelings, or ideas about the music and information studied.

C. Language Arts - stories in the music or use of non-standard English such as dialects (Gullah); children’s fiction books about slavery. Vocabulary words associated with each lesson.

D. Curriculum Links - Science, Social Studies, Performing Arts, Visual Arts.

Essential Questions

!. How did Spirituals help explain the feelings slaves had about their world?

2. What did the slaves have to sing about?

3. How were Spirituals used as “escape” songs for slaves?

Historical Background Notes

Over 300 years ago, people were taken from their homes in Africa to the United States against their will. These enslaved people sang songs that expressed their longing for freedom, their homeland, and a better life. Such songs are called “Spirituals”. Emphasis on rhythm is an important element of most African American Spirituals, and the singers clap on the second and fourth beats of a bar. Because slaves were not allowed to use musical instruments, they used their hands and bodies as instruments.

The form of many African American Spirituals and work songs is call and response. Enslaved people brought this form of music to the United States from Africa. Usually, a leader sings a phrase (the call) and the whole group answers with another phrase (the response). Singers might form two groups, with the first group singing the call and the second group singing the response.

A Spiritual is a song with a religious message on the surface. The words might also have a hidden meaning. Certain words were “code” words for enslaved African Americans trying to reach freedom.  Charles Joyner states in his book, Down by the Riverside, “they (Spirituals) reflected awareness that God can work miracles to bring about immediate change” as well as “the belief that persistence would be rewarded.” (p.165) One such song, In That Great Get’n Up Mornin’, expresses the wish to get along well on the “great getting up morning” which was Judgment Day, and get to heaven. Judgment Day was a code word for time of escape, and Heaven was a code word for a better life in the North.

Slaves led very difficult lives. They were forbidden many things, but they were allowed to play music and go to church. Therefore, they put a great deal of energy into their music. Combining their African rhythms and harmonies with messages of hope and freedom, they created the first American style of music called Spirituals.

Because slaves were forbidden to play musical instruments, they created complex vocal harmonies. The words of the songs were often taken from the Bible (which surely pleased the Masters) that told of hope for a better future.

One of the best known Spirituals, Let My People Go, describes the Biblical Moses leading the Jewish people out of slavery in Israel. Harriet Tubman, a famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad was nicknamed “Moses” because she, too, led her people to freedom.  The words often had a double meaning- religious and freedom.

The African American spirituals affected the overall development of American music. Although they changed over time, they served as the basis for gospel music, the blues, and jazz. The basics of these styles of music are all taken from Spirituals, and these forms of music in turn influenced rock n’roll, soul, reggae, as well as hip-hop.

Cultural Institution Partner

No cultural institution partner available for this lesson plan.


Primary Sources

Connelly, Bernardine, Writer. Follow the Drinking Gourd. Rabbit Ears Films, 2000. VHS.                 

Hogan, Moses. Abide With Me:  A Collection of Spirituals and Hymns. MGH Records, 1999. CD.

Hopkinson, Deborah and James E. Ransome. Under the Quilt of Night. Aladdin Paperbacks: Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York, New York, 2002.

Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Music Slave Community. Urbana and Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Macmillan, McGraw-Hill: Spotlight on Music. Macmillan, McGraw-Hill, of McGraw-Hill Education, a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., New York, New York, 2008.

Miller-Cohen, Louise. Gullah Gospel with Natural Music. Folklife Resource Center, University of South Carolina, 2007. CD.

Raven, Margot Theis. Night Boat to Freedom. Melanie Kroupa Books: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, New York, 2006.

Ringold, Faith. Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky. Scholastic Inc: New York, Toronto, London, Auckland, Sydney, 1994.

Winter, Jeanette. Follow the Drinking Gourd. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, New York, 1988.

Secondary Sources

“Follow the Drinking Gourd: The Message in the Song.” Available from
http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/educators/lessons/grade-3-4/What_does_this_song_say.aspx. Internet, The Kennedy Center. Accessed 16 May 2003.

'History of "The Drinking Gourd."' Available from http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/ltc/special/mlk/gourd1.html. Internet, NASA. Accessed 16 May 2003.

"Our Virtual Underground Railroad Quilt." Available from http://www.beavton.k12.or.us/greenway/leahy/ugrr/. Internet, Greenway Elementary School. Accessed 2009.

"Routes to Freedom." Maps of escape routes. Available from
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/railroad/map.html. Internet, National Geographic Online.

“The Underground Railroad.” Available from http://nationalgeographic.com/features/99/railroad. Internet, National Geographic Online. Accessed 16 May 2003.


• Student Music Book (Spotlight on Music, Grade 5)

• Examples of Spirituals (examples from music curriculum and various other sources)

• Printed Handouts (song sheet, journal pages, constellation wheel, routes to freedom map)

• Web Access for referencing information

• Unpitched instruments

• Art project materials (quilt squares, runaway slave posters)

• Smart Board for interactive activities

Lesson Plans

Students will learn that music was an important means of communication for African Americans during their years of enslavement, especially for those trying to escape through the Underground Railroad.

Students will sing songs about the Underground Railroad and identify musical elements in the songs, and learn about their hidden messages.

Lesson 1
1. Students will listen to “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and identify the style of music they hear.

2. Students will read about the song in their student music book (p.142).

3. The teacher will instruct students that they will sings songs about the Underground Railroad and will identify musical elements in the songs, and learn about their hidden messages.

4. Students will receive a song sheet of the song “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” (this version has more verses than in the student book) and will learn the chorus of the song.

5. The teacher will lead a group discussion about the song lyrics, and students will answer these questions: What is a gourd? What is it used for? What kind of gourd are the lyrics about? Where do the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper Constellations get their names? Why was the North Star important to slaves?

6. Students will be reminded that “Drinkin’Gourd” was a code word for the Big Dipper. Students will look at the song (handout sheet) for other words that might be code words.

7. The teacher will read the book, Follow the Drinking Gourd, by Jeanette Winter and will remind students of how the song of the same name acts as a coded map to lead slaves to freedom.

8. Students will be divided into 3 groups and will design original choreography for the refrain of the song. Students will present their group movement to the large group.

9. Students will write a reflection of what they learned during the lesson on their journal page. (Informal assessment)

Lesson 2
1. Students will review the words of the song "Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd" and answer the following questions: Who was the Old Man? Where was he waiting? What was he waiting to do?

2. Teacher will lead a brief discussion about the three rivers mentioned in the song. Students will volunteer to find the rivers on the classroom map. (Tombigee River, Tennessee River, and Ohio River). The NASA QUEST web site provides astronomy activities as well as lyrics for code songs. (http://www.quest.arc.nasa.gov/ltc/special/mlk/mlkarchive.html) Students will make a Big Dipper Wheel (instructions) using the hand out pattern provided.

3. Students will listen to the playing of “code songs” (Spirituals) during the above activity.

4. Students will watch the video: The Story of Follow the Drinking Gourd narrated by Morgan Freeman (30 minutes).

5. Students will write a reflection of what they learned during the lesson on their journal page. (Informal Assessment)

Lesson 3
1. Students will learn that even today, songs are often learned by ear and passed along as part of an oral tradition.

2. Students will read information in their student book (pp.144-145) about Moses Hogan and listen to his arrangement of “Wade in the Water”. Students will learn that the words of this spiritual refer to the Biblical story in John 5:1-4 about the Pool of Bethesda, in Jerusalem. Sometimes the water’s surface was stirred, and it rippled and moved. This was called “troubling the waters.”

3. Following the listening of the Moses Hogan arrangement of the song, students will describe the emotional impact and performance in a Large Group setting. Students will include musical features that stand out in the performance (such as soloist and choir sang in call and response style, there was a full choral sound, full range of dynamics, the verses tell a story, lyrics are simple and repetitive, one meaning of the words is about escape to freedom)

4. Students will choose a partner and discuss the following “THINK !” question: What might be the reasons that spirituals were originally sung a capella?

5. Students will work with a partner and discuss personal experiences that they’ve had and how they would pass them down to their descendants (teacher will share a personal experience) through journals, scrapbooks, or photographs. Volunteers will share information during the large-group discussion.

6. WRAP UP: The teacher will share that enslaved African Americans relied mainly on oral tradition to pass down their experiences. Teacher will give interested students a “SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT”: Students will interview family members to compile a list of such songs and their meanings to the students’ culture and/or families. Student volunteers will share their finding during the next class. Students may make their report in the form of a written or recorded interview.

Lesson 4
1. Teacher will ask the students if they have ever heard of an Underground Railroad “conductor” known as Moses? Students will volunteer who they think this person may be (Harriet Tubman) and talk about how they think she got this nickname.

2. Teacher will read information about Harriet Tubman in their student music book (p.145), and volunteers will add any additional information they may know about Harriet Tubman.

3. Students will listen to “The Ballad of the Underground Railroad” and tell who it is about. Students will be asked to identify other songs they heard within “The Ballad of the Underground Railroad.” (“Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” and “Wade in the Water”)

4. Students will sing the refrain using the music in their student music book (p.145)

5. Students will take an interactive trip on the Underground Railroad using the National Geographic Online’s “Underground Railroad” which provides information about slavery and the abolitionist movement, including an interactive journey through the Underground Railroad. There are timelines, links, and brief biographies on famous leaders in the movement.

6. Students will write a reflection of what they learned during the lesson on their journal page. (Informal Assessment)

Lesson 5
1. Teacher will read Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson, and students will read Margot Raven’s book, Night Boat to Freedom, in round-robin style. Students will compare and contrast the two stories.

2. Teacher will introduce the end-of-unit project by giving the following information: (Students may choose one of the two projects to complete)
Design one quilt square that was a code for escaping slaves. Quilt square examples may be found at the following web site (Mr. Leahy’s 4th grade class). http://www.beavton.k12.or.us/greenway/leahy/ugrr/. Students choosing this option may use the examples as a guide, but must create their own unique code pattern. Students may choose to design a runaway slave poster. Poster examples may be found at the following web sites: http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blharriettubman.htm (Information about Harriet Tubman as well as examples of runaway slave posters) and http://www.territorialkansasonline.org. (Examples of runaway slave posters). Students will decide which project they will work on, and directions for each project will be given. Students will begin work (if time allows) on the rough draft for their runaway poster, as well as for their quilt square. Students and teacher will create and display a final quilt using all the squares designed by grade 5 students. Quilt will be displayed in a prominent location in the school, along with an explanation of the project. Runaway slave posters will also be displayed.

Teacher Reflections

 I fell in love with history at Hand Junior High School in the eighth grade where we studied South Carolina History. I simply could not get enough history and I constantly bombarded my friends with historical facts that they cared nothing about. For the next 4 years, all through high school, I lived and breathed history, historical events, and historical locations, and that love translated into a love of visiting “foreign” places and discovering how their cultures were different from mine.

As I entered college, my life took a different path, and I was “locked” into courses for my music degree which did not give me many educational opportunities for the study of history. My electives were “used up” taking Italian and being in Opera Workshop and other courses pertaining to my major, so I was unable to take any college history classes. I still retained my love of history all through graduate school and into my adult daily life, but I did not take another history class until this class.

The stimulating sessions with Paul brought it all back, and I found myself drinking it  in once again.  I found myself taking copious notes, as though I was the “scribe” in charge of making sure all this was written down for posterity….I noticed from time to time that I was the ONLY person taking notes. I heard things in the class from a different perspective than I had as a child, but I attribute that to being older and wiser and having some more living under my belt. Even though I had loved the study of history before, this class enabled me to see that history is not only who we are as people but also where we came from and where we are going.

The class has reinforced my teaching in so many ways, but the most important way is that I myself was involved in higher-order thinking skills during class discussions, which helped me to develop lessons for my students that allow them to use the same higher-order thinking skills. My thought processes were stimulated and challenged, and I looked at things from a different perspective, which is the way I encourage my students to think during music class.  I am a questioning person by nature, so using primary and secondary sources as teaching tools has enabled me to put more thought and planning into my lessons. I have enjoyed “digging up” information from the wealth of materials available today. 

In 1993 I began teaching public school music, and my first position was as the music teacher for 3 schools in Lee County- a small elementary school (k-6), a Middle School in downtown Bishopville, S.C.  made up of 1,000 4th-6th graders, and as the choral teacher at Bishopville High School. At that point in my teaching career, I was not at all sure of what I was doing — I just knew that I wanted to teach kids about music. So, I naively began teaching them the “rudiments” of music — the theory, the composition and all the things they had no interest in. Needless to say, I “lost” my Middle and High School students completely, and I had many discipline problems. After a few weeks I realized that I was not getting through to them and began to think about what I needed to change. I threw away all the lesson plans I had written and started over — using what I loved about music as well as my love for history. I began to use historical background information from primary and secondary sources to construct lessons that helped kids connect music and its place in history. (I had no idea at the time that I was using primary and secondary sources!!!)  It was a success!!!  I have continued to integrate history into all of my music lessons for the past 17 years, and very few students have “complained”. In fact, one day a 5th grade student told me that he learned more social studies from me than he did from his classroom teacher!!!  I took it as a compliment — especially since it hit home with him he had an “a-ha” moment in music class. I have discovered through the years that African American students do not know their own musical history or that American music is a style that grew from the Spirituals of the slaves. As students discover how music relates to them in their daily life as well as to their culture, they are open to making connections between themselves and their world.

My favorite period of American History is slavery and the Civil War, so there was an awesome opportunity for the development of lessons centered on the Spirituals, the Underground Railroad and slavery. I have been able to use information from class discussion about abolitionists during the time of slavery as well as helping students make cultural connections between themselves and their ancestors who may have been enslaved. Although some subjects are inappropriate for elementary students (Jim Crow Laws), I am able to use the information gathered from class to “water down” the information to give students a “glimpse in the window” of the indignities African Americans suffered in our country. I have used fictional children’s books as well as videos on the subject of slavery and the Underground Railroad along with biographical information about the real-life characters of this historical period to reinforce concepts. In addition, I encourage my students to seek out older adults who may have heard some of these stories passed on from generation to generation. What better way to learn something than practically first-hand?

The class was and will continue to be an invaluable source of information for me in my teaching. Not only did I learn and grow as a result, but I feel that the class enabled me to change my way of thinking as I plan and implement music and history in the music class.

Student Assessment

Assessment for this unit uses informal observation along with the grading rubric used for the related arts areas in our school. The rubric is as follows:

  1. Above Average: Students put forth their personal best and good effort throughout the entire class period.
  2. Satisfactory: Students do well at putting forth effort but are not consistently doing their personal best.
  3. Needs Improvement: Students need to improve their effort level with regard either to behavior, attention, or participation.
  4. Unsatisfactory: Students show little or no effort in trying to participate or listen.

Examples of Students Work

Quilt Square
Runaway Slave Poster


Debi Young
Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School
Columbia, South Carolina