Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Follow the Drinking Gourd
As a family, we have a love for the nighttime sky. On clear evenings we will drag the telescope outside and focus it on the moon, or Jupiter, or Venus. Often we make the 45-minute drive to the planetarium in Aiken where, on Saturday, they feature different shows about the planets and stars. So far our favorites have been 'Tis the Season (which describes the nighttime sky and the possible astronomical explanations for the Star of Bethlehem) and To the Moon and Beyond (which revisits past missions to the moon).
This past Saturday we saw Follow the Drinking Gourd, which described how slaves used astronomy and song to escape to freedom; the title refers to both the hollowed out gourd used for drinking and to the Big Dipper, which pointed to the north star that they used as a guide as they made their way north from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River and up into Canada.
I knew a little of the song's history, but what I didn't realize was how the song was passed along. According to tradition, a white laborer named Peg Leg Joe went from plantation to plantation doing odd work during the day, and then meeting with the slaves at night to teach them the song which detailed their escape route.
Every line, every word meant something. For example, the second verse goes like this:
The river bank will make a mighty good road (describes how to follow the route north)
The dead trees show you the way (they traveled in winter when the nights are longest)
Left foot, peg foot, travelling on (Peg Leg Joe marked the trees along the way with the outline of a human left foot and a round spot for his peg leg.)
Follow the drinking gourd.
It was all wonderfully fascinating.
After the presentation we went outside to clear winter sky and there, in all its glory, was the Big Dipper pointing to Polaris, the north star. And it was sobering to think how this same sky, during this same time of year, meant salvation to so many ...