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The Drinking Gourd Festival is a bi-annual artistic and musical celebration of the history of the song Follow the Drinking Gourd in the Underground Railroad. Little Lights Arts presents The Drinking Gourd Festival in partnership with Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library. The Drinking Gourd Festival features an art exhibition and  performance by J.C. Nalle Elementary School students. and the Nalle Stars Children's Chorus. 

“Follow the Drinking Gourd” is an ingenious song that was used during period of American slavery to help African – Americans escape to freedom, especially from the Deep South. Legend tells that a man named Peg Leg Joe traveled from plantation to plantation, hiring himself out as a carpenter. Knowing that any straight forward tangible aids for escape would be discovered, and provoke severe punishment from slave owners, he recognized the need for a new strategy. African – American culture was, and still is, widely centered around and expressed through music. During slavery times, most music was vocal. Capitalizing upon this rich song tradition, Peg Leg Joe taught enslaved Blacks on each plantation “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as a ‘code song’ to be sung while working in the fields. The lyrics contain vital escape information that includes what time of year to leave (Spring) and which rivers and trees to use as a northward guide. Of course it includes a constant directive to use the Polaris constellation, called the Drinking Gourd for its shape, as a starry map toward the north and freedom.

In 2015 JC Nalle Music Teacher and Little Lights Arts Director Maya Cunningham, received an ArtsNow Grant from the DC Public Education fund for her music students to participate in the festival. Adjoa Burrows, children’s book illustrator and teaching artist, was a wonderful choice to conduct a Little Lights Arts In - School Arts Residency called Follow the Drinking Gourd Music Map Murals. All winter and spring, Ms. Burrows and Ms. Cunningham engaged second and third grade music students in the residency. 

Follow the Drinking Gourd Music Map Murals was first presented by Ms. Cunningham in New York City with almost two hundred elementary school students who worked on five mural panels. Both in New York and DC, students learned to sing and perform the song while analyzing and illustrating the map encoded in the lyrics. Ms. Cunningham taught students how to sing Follow the Drinking Gourd and other African – American spirituals that have encoded escape messages. Ms. Burrows taught the students how to draw landscapes using perspective and how to illustrate the natural landmarks that are named in each verse of the song. The children constructed mural collages that are absolutely beautiful.

The Follow the Drinking Gourd Collage Murals exhibition opened at The Drinking Gourd Festival at the Francis A. Gregory Library on June 16, 2015 .

The Little Lights Arts Follow the Drinking Gourd Music Map Murals program is available for schools as well as summer, after school and Saturday programs. The Follow the Drinking Gourd Collage Murals exhibition is also available to travel to other institutions.