An American Gourd Story

Follow the Drinking Gourd is an African American Spiritual, a religious folk song. The song was thought to be a code of directions for slaves trying to escape Slavery in the South who traveled to freedom across the Ohio River in the North. Although it was a song, it had practical implications.  The lyrics supposedly gave the slaves directions out of the South, ideal seasons to cross the Ohio river (Winter since it was frozen), and the best routes to take to freedom.  The ‘Drinking Gourd’ symbolized the Big Dipper which points North.  But, the slaves also carried gourds filled with water on their migratory escape to the North.  In order to migrate, a person needs water to drink.  Other parts alluded to the Underground Railroad. Folklore has it that Slaves sung this song to each other knowing it had directions to freedom.  Historians have dismissed this folklore as fakelore.  Sifting out Fact from Fiction is inherent in Folklore.  But, a good narrative or story lives forever whether it is true or not.  It doesn’t matter because the impact of the song has been far reaching.  Though many have disproved the song’s validity, the lyrics have inspired many agents of change over the decades. The words have inspired generations of activists and communities.  It was a story and song that was used in the Civil Rights Movement and is used today to teach about liberation.  Following the Drinking Gourd is a profound metaphor that still resonates today with all the Issues of Racial inequality that our Country is being forced to examine.  Fluidity and Freedom.

Living in California, there is a rich history of gourd Stories in the Native American Traditions.  I am interested in how the Gourd intersects Race in America. Inspired by The Way Things Go, by Fischli and Weiss, and the inherent ‘mobility, chance, serendipity’ that their piece represents, my work in the exhibition will explore the chance and serendipity of the Gourd through vessels, moving water, migration, landscape, astronomy, narrative, light, and freedom with some humor and hope, loosely drawing on the folksong Follow the Drinking Gourd.


Terri Friedman, 2015.