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Day 3: Hear the Whistle Blow! -Musical Messages of Freedom


Language Arts, Music, Social Studies  


4, 5  

Title – All Aboard! Exploring the Secrets of the Underground Railroad – An Interdisciplinary Unit

Day 3 Lesson: Hear the Whistle Blow! – Musical Messages of Freedom

Note, this is one part of a larger unit which can be found here .

By – Elizabeth Hodgson and Rachel Vogelpohl
Primary Subject – Social Studies
Secondary Subjects – Music, Language Arts
Grade Level – 4


Social Studies
2.04 – Describe how different ethnic groups have influenced culture, customs and history of North Carolina.
3.04 – Compare and contrast ways in which people, goods, and ideas moved in the past with their movement today.
4.02 – Identify religious groups that have influenced life in North Carolina and assess the impact of their beliefs.
5.01 – Explain different celebrated holidays, special days, and cultural traditions in North Carolina communities.
5.02 – Describe traditional art, music, and craft forms in North Carolina.

English Language Arts
2.03 – Read a variety of texts, including: fiction (legends, novels, folklore, science fiction), nonfiction (autobiographies, informational books, diaries, journals), poetry (concrete, haiku), drama (skits, plays),
2.09 – Listen actively by: asking questions, paraphrasing what was said, interpreting speaker’s verbal and non-verbal messages, interpreting speaker’s purposes and/or intent.
3.03 – Consider the ways language and visuals bring characters to life, enhance plot development, and produce a response.
4.05 – Use planning strategies to generate topics and organize ideas (e.g., brainstorming, mapping, webbing, reading, discussion).

2.01 – Use improvisation to discover and invent dance.
2.03 – Demonstrate the ability to work independently and cooperatively.
2.04 – Improvise, create, and perform dances based on own ideas and concepts from other sources.

6.06 – Respond through purposeful movement to selected prominent music characteristics or to specific music events while listening to music.
6.07 – Show respect while listening to and analyzing music.


  • Comparison/contrast chart
  • Follow the Drinking Gourd
  • Copies of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” song
  • CD/tape player
  • “Follow the Drinking Gourd” tape

    Follow the Drinking Gourd

    The song and its translation are as follows:

    When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
    Follow the Drinking Gourd.
    For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom,
    If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

    “When the sun comes back” means winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day. Quail are migratory bird wintering in the South. The Drinking Gourd is the Big Dipper. The old man is Peg Leg Joe. The verse tells slaves to leave in the winter and walk towards the Drinking Gourd. Eventually they will meet a guide who will escort them for the remainder of the trip.

    Most escapees had to cross the Ohio River which is too wide and too swift to swim. The Railroad struggled with the problem of how to get escapees across, and with experience, came to believe the best crossing time was winter. Then the river was frozen, and escapees could walk across on the ice. Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South to the Ohio, the Railroad urged slaves to start their trip in winter in order to be at the Ohio the next winter.

    The river bank makes a very good road,
    The dead trees show you the way,
    Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
    Follow the Drinking Gourd.

    This verse taught slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north looking for dead trees that were marked with drawings of a left foot and a peg foot. The markings distinguished the Tombigbee from other north-south rivers that flow into it.

    The river ends between two hills,
    Follow the Drinking Gourd.
    There’s another river on the other side,
    Follow the Drinking Gourd.

    These words told the slaves that when they reached the headwaters of the Tombigbee, they were to continue north over the hills until they met another river. Then they were to travel north along the new river which is the Tennessee River. A number of the southern escape routes converged on the Tennessee.

    Where the great big river meets the little river,
    Follow the Drinking Gourd.
    For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom
    if you follow the Drinking Gourd.

    This verse told the slaves the Tennessee joined another river. They were to cross that river (which is the Ohio River), and on the north bank, meet a guide from the Underground Railroad.


    Question for Students
    Ask the students how North Carolina’s runaway slaves might have found out which people, like Quakers, could be trusted or how they would have found out to get to Mendenhall Plantation.

    Have the students brainstorm the ways in which people today would communicate important information to one another. On the board or on the overhead, list the students’ ideas.

    Next, have the students predict ways in which North Carolina’s slaves, conductors, or abolitionists might have received or passed information to one another. Again, on the board or on the overhead, list the students’ ideas.

    Comparison/Contrast Chart
    On a large piece of construction paper, hang a Comparison/Contrast Chart. Instruct the students that they will be able to help you fill the chart out after they have had a chance to listen to a story. They will need to listen carefully to the story for information that will either confirm or help to revise their predictions of how North Carolina’s slaves, conductors, or abolitionists might have received or passed information to one another. The chart will be to compare and contrast the way in which people in the days of the UGR and today would have received or passed information.

    Follow the Drinking Gourd by J. Winter
    Read Follow the Drinking Gourd , a book on many of the forms of “communication” employed by slaves, conductors, and abolitionists, including music, such as the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

    After reading the book, play the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” for the students. Divide the students into four groups. Each group will receive the words and the translation to one stanza of the song.

    Each group will need to discuss the translation of its stanza’s coded messages. After discussing the meanings of their stanza, the students must create a dance that illustrates their stanza of the song (approximately 1 minute long). To the music, each group will perform its stanza’s illustrations, so that the song is performed in its entirety.

    After the performance of the song, the class should gather to discuss the translations of the song’s stanzas. Each group should lead the discussion of its stanza.

    Comparison/Contrast Chart
    Lead a discussion of what the children learned about communication between North Carolina’s slaves, conductors, and abolitionists. Have them point out their misconceptions and their accuracies. Allow the children to write down their answers on the Comparison/Contrast Chart. The teacher or other students should write the answers for those who are unable to physically write or don’t feel comfortable writing.

    Multiple Intelligences:

    Verbal/Linguistic: (reading and discussing story)
    Visual/Spatial: (creation and viewing of dance)
    Interpersonal: (group creation of dance)
    Kinesthetic: (participating in the dance)
    Musical: (listening to the music to create the dance)
    Note: Activity also appeals to auditory (listening to story and music) and visual (viewing of others’ dance presentations) learners.


    Assessment of students’ dance presentations, using the presentation rubric ..

    E-Mail Elizabeth Hodgson and Rachel Vogelpohl !

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