Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Episode 591 (8-23-21): Water Symbolism in African American Civil Rights History (Episode Two of the Series “Exploring Water in U.S. Civil Rights History”)

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (5:32).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 8-23-21.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of August 23, 2021.  This episode, the second in a series of episodes on water in U.S. civil rights history, explores water as symbolism in African American civil rights history.  [The first episode in the series--the series overview--is Episode 566, 3-1-21.]  We start with about 50 seconds of music.

MUSIC – ~53 sec – Lyrics: “Well the river ends between two hills; follow the drinkin’ gourd.  There’s another river on the other side; follow the drinkin’ gourd.  Follow the drinkin’ gourd; follow the drinkin’ gourd.  For the ol’ man is a’waiting for the carry you to freedom; follow the drinkin’ gourd.”

You’ve been listening to part of “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” recorded by Eric Bibb in 2013.  The song is believed to have been used prior to the Civil War as a code to help enslaved people escape on the Underground Railroad.  In that interpretation, the verses gave information about the route, and the drinking gourd referred to the Big Dipper, setting the direction to go by pointing towards the North Star.  Another water-related spiritual song, “Wade in the Water,” is also believed to have been used as Underground Railroad code.  Both songs became popular hymns within African American churches and, by the mid-1900s, were closely associated with the modern Civil Rights Movement.

In a 2018 post entitled “The Role of Water in African American History,” Tyler Parry stated that, “water’s culturally symbolic importance resonated across generations….”

Following are four other examples of water symbolism connected to the African American movement for civil rights.

Number 1: “Parting the waters.”  This phrase refers to the account in the Bible Book of Exodus, in which God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could escape from Egyptian slavery.  It’s been used as a metaphor for the enormous challenges that African Americans have faced in acquiring and asserting their civil rights.  For instance, it’s the title of the first volume in Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the modern civil rights era, America in the King Years.  That trilogy is the source for the next two examples.

Number 2. “Until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Martin Luther King, Jr., frequently used this phrase, taken from the Bible Book of Amos, to describe how long the U.S. civil rights movement would need to continue.

Number 3: “Springs of racial poison.”  At the signing of the federal Civil Rights Act in July 1964, President Lyndon Johnson said, “We must not fail.  Let us close the springs of racial poison.”

And number 4. “A fire no water could put out.”  Dr. King used this phrase in his final public sermon in Memphis.  Recalling demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, when Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety “Bull” Connor ordered fire hoses turned on demonstrators, Dr. King said that Connor didn’t realize “that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.”

These examples are only a small piece of a much larger story.  I invite listeners to offer Virginia Water Radio other examples of water metaphors and symbolism in U.S. civil rights history.

Thanks to Eric Bibb, his manager Heather Taylor, and Riddle Films for permission to use this week’s music, and we close with about 25 more seconds of Mr. Bibb performing “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

MUSIC – ~ 24 sec – Lyrics: “For the ol’ man is a’waitin’ for to carry you to freedom; follow the drinkin’ gourd.”


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water. 


The Eric Bibb performance of “Follow the Drinking Gourd” heard in this Virginia Water Radio episode was taken from a video recording dated March 19, 2013, and posted by Riddle Films online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjBZEMkmwYA.  Audio for this recording is used with permission of Eric Bibb, via his manager Heather Taylor; and of Liam Romalis at Riddle Films.  More information about Eric Bibb is available online at https://www.ericbibb.com/.  More information about Riddle Films is available online at http://riddlefilms.com/.

An excellent version of “Wade in the Water” (the other song mentioned in this weeks audio), performed by Deeper Dimension, is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NQvOFTioJg.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at http://www.bencosgrove.com.


Image of the relation of the constellation known as the Big Dipper and as the Drinking Gourd to the North Star.  Image from the National Park Service, “North Star to Freedom,” accessed online at https://www.nps.gov/articles/drinkinggourd.htm, 8/23/21.

Map of escape routes for enslaved people prior to the U.S. Civil War.  Map by National Park Service, “What is the Underground Railroad?”  Image accessed online at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/what-is-the-underground-railroad.htm, 8/23/21.

Sculpture in Birmingham, Alabama’s, Kelly Ingram Park, recalling fire hoses being used on civil rights protestors in the 1960s.  Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, March 3, 2010.  Accessed from the Library of Congress, online at https://www.loc.gov/item/2010636978/, 8/23/21.


Used for Audio 

Kenyatta D. Berry, “Singing in Slavery: Songs of Survival, Songs of Freedom,” PBS “Mercy Street Revealed Blog,” 1/23/17, online at http://www.pbs.org/mercy-street/blogs/mercy-street-revealed/songs-of-survival-and-songs-of-freedom-during-slavery/.

Taylor Branch:
At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68
, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007;
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63
, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988;
Personal Communication, March 16, 2021;
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65
, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998.

Joel Bressler, “Follow the Drinking Gourd: A Cultural History,” online at http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/.

Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers – Poem by Langston Hughes,” online at https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Negro-Speaks-of-Rivers. 

C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘Wade in the Water,’” 2/1/16, Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church, online at https://www.mississippi-umc.org/newsdetail/2576866.

High Museum of Art (Atlanta, Ga.), “’A Fire That No Water Could Put Out’: Civil Rights Photography” (exhibit November 4, 2017—April 29, 2018), online at https://high.org/exhibition/a-fire-that-no-water-could-put-out-civil-rights-photography/.

Martin Luther King, Jr.:
August 28, 1963, speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (“I have a dream” speech), as published by American Rhetoric, online at https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm;
April 3, 1968, speech in Memphis, Tenn. (“I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech), as published by American Rhetoric, online at https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.

LearntheBible.org, “Parting of the Waters,” online at http://www.learnthebible.org/parting-of-the-waters.html.

Bruce McClure, “Here’s How To Find The Big Dipper and Little Dipper,” EarthSky, March 7, 2021, online at https://earthsky.org/favorite-star-patterns/big-and-little-dippers-highlight-northern-sky/.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Symbolism,” online at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/symbolism. 

National Center for Civil and Human Rights (Atlanta, Ga.), “Rolls Down Like Water: U.S. Civil Rights Movement” (exhibit), online at https://www.civilandhumanrights.org/exhibition/us-civil-rights/.

National Park Service:
“Kelly Ingram Park” [Birmingham, Ala.], online at https://www.nps.gov/places/kelly-ingram-park.htm;
“North Star to Freedom,” online at https://www.nps.gov/articles/drinkinggourd.htm;
“Theophilus Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor (1897-1973),” online at https://www.nps.gov/people/bull-connor.htm;
“Underground Railroad,” online at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/index.htm.

NPR (National Public Radio) and Smithsonian Institution, “Wade in the Water” (26-part series produced in 1994 on the history of American gospel music), online at https://www.npr.org/series/726103231/wade-in-the-water.

Tyler Parry, “The Role of Water in African American History,” Black Perspectives blog (African American Intellectual History Society), May 4, 2018, online at https://www.aaihs.org/the-role-of-water-in-african-american-history/.

PBS (Public Broadcasting System) “American Experience/Soundtrack for a Revolution,” online at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/soundtrack/.

Walter Rhett, “Decoding ‘Wade in the Water,’” Black History 360*, February 18, 2011, online at https://blackhistory360.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/decoding-wade-in-the-water/.

Selma [Alabama] Times-Journal, The drinking gourd and the Underground Railroad, January 26, 2004.

Smithsonian Folkways, “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966,” online at https://folkways.si.edu/voices-of-the-civil-rights-movement-black-american-freedom-songs-1960-1966/african-american-music-documentary-struggle-protest/album/smithsonian.

Tellers Untold, “How Harriet Tubman used ‘Wade in the Water’ to help slaves escape,” February 15, 2021, online at https://www.tellersuntold.com/2021/02/15/how-harriet-tubman-used-the-song-wade-in-the-water-to-help-slaves-escape-to-the-north/.

For More Information about Civil Rights in the United States

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “The Civil Rights Movement in America,” online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zcpcwmn/revision/1.

Georgetown Law Library, “A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States,” online at https://guides.ll.georgetown.edu/civilrights.

Howard University Law Library, “A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States,” online at https://library.law.howard.edu/civilrightshistory/intro. 

University of Maryland School of Law/Thurgood Marshall Law Library, “Historical Publications of the United States Commission on Civil Rights,” online at https://law.umaryland.libguides.com/commission_civil_rights.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, online at https://www.usccr.gov/.

U.S. House of Representatives, “Constitutional Amendments and Major Civil Rights Acts of Congress Referenced in Black Americans in Congress,” online at https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Historical-Data/Constitutional-Amendments-and-Legislation/.

U.S. National Archives, “The Constitution of the United States,” online at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “History” subject category.

This episode is part of the series Exploring Water in U.S. Civil Rights History.  As of August 23, 2021, other episodes is the series are as follows:
Episode 566, 3-1-21
– series overview.

Following are links to some previous episodes on the history of African Americans in Virginia.

Episode 459, 2-11-19 – on Abraham Lincoln’s arrival in Richmond at the end of the Civil War.
Episode 128, 9-17-12
– on Chesapeake Bay Menhaden fishing crews and music.
Episode 458, 2-4-19
– on Nonesuch and Rocketts Landing in Richmond.  


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2020 Music SOLs 

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2017 English SOLs

Reading Theme
5.4, 6.5, 7.4, 8.4, 8.5, 9.3, 9.4, 10.3, 10.4, 11.4 – Symbols, imagery, figurative language, and other literary devices.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Grades K-3 History Theme
2.5 – Lives of people associated with major holidays.

Grades K-3 Civics Theme
1.13 – People of Virginia’s state and local government, contributions to communities, and diversity of ethnic origins, customs, and traditions, under a republican form of government with respect for individual rights and freedoms.
3.13 – People of America’s diversity of ethnic origins, customs, and traditions, under a republican form of government with respect for individual rights and freedoms.

Virginia Studies Course
VS.7 – Civil War issues and events, including the role of Virginia and the role of various ethnic groups.
VS.8 – Reconstruction era in Virginia, including “Jim Crow” issues and industrialization. 

United States History to 1865 Course
USI.9 – Causes, events, and effects of the Civil War.

United States History: 1865-to-Present Course
USII.4 – Developments and changes in the period 1877 to early 1900s.
USII.6 – Social, economic, and technological changes from the 1890s to 1945.
USII.8 – Economic, social, and political transformation of the United States and the world after World War II.
USII.9 – Domestic and international issues during the second half of the 20th Century and the early 21st Century.

Virginia and United States History Course
VUS.7 – Knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

Government Course
GOVT.3 – Concepts of democracy.
GOVT.11 – Civil liberties and civil rights.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15
– on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15
– on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16
– on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16
– on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18
– on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18
– on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18
– on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18
– on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19
– on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20
– on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20
– on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20
– on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.