Can a Song Point the Way to Freedom?

Can a Song Point the Way to Freedom?

By Joann Benson



Every child likes a good scavenger hunt, and using the Code Songs from the Underground Railroad with your students allows them to discover the rich history hidden in these songs.

Probably the most famous code song is “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” While scholars have mixed reviews on whether this song is historically accurate, it is a great representation of the kinds of songs that enslaved Africans might have heard that point the way to freedom. An introductory video can be found on Brainpop if your school has access to this.


Zoonar RF/Zoonar/Thinkstock
Zoonar RF/Zoonar/Thinkstock


My fifth graders love to delve into the history behind music. We begin with a study of the song itself, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” as we decipher the secret directions hidden within. For example,

  • “When the first quail calls” indicates what time of year? (Spring)
  • What might the drinking gourd be? (the Big Dipper)
  • Why does the riverbank make a mighty good road? (Dogs cannot track the scent there) .

If you have access to the Spotlight in Music series, this song is featured in the grade 5 edition. (Spotlight has an entire lesson in Unit 4 on the code songs of the Underground Railroad.)

After we learn the song, we use a great resource from Thinkport that allows my students to make decisions as if they are an escaping Maryland slavery. Since my school is in Maryland, it becomes all too real for them. It offers a very exciting “choose your own adventure” experience for them. Another link on this page shares more of the songs that might have been used, including audio clips.

Not only songs were used to share the code of the Underground Railroad, however. There is an entire secret language of quilts that can be unlocked. A great resource for that is an additional Thinkport location that explains how quilts were used to signal safe houses. Students can create their own quilt blocks to tell their own story.




As a culminating activity for this unit, I have my students split up into groups of two or three and create a drawing for a class paper “quilt” that will explain the codes in “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” I give them a slip of paper with one line of the song on it, and their challenge is to draw (no words!) JUST that part of the story. When they’ve completed their square, they display it on the board.

When all are done, we reassemble and see if we can piece together the sequence of the song. I then anchor these in the correct order on a large piece of brightly colored paper, and use patterned duct tape to create the borders. The students are so proud to see these displayed in the hall, and they enjoy comparing how each class captured the essence of the song.

There are tons of additional resources out there, of course. Discovery Ed offers a Reading Rainbow video (who doesn’t love LaVar??) based on the book by Jeanette Winter of “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Students will enjoy further study of other code songs such as “When the Saints go Marching In,” “Wade in the Water,” “Get on Board,” “There’s no Hiding Place,” and others.

Enjoy the exploration of these fabulous code songs with your students!!


About the Author

Joann Benson

Joann Long Benson is the vocal/general music teacher at Sandymount Elementary School in Finksburg, Maryland. She has been in this district for 21 years, having started her career in upstate New York. Mrs. Benson also accompanies the Children’s Chorus of Carroll County, as well as freelancing as an accompanist in the Baltimore area.

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