Friday, December 6, 2013

Darling Nelly Gray

Way back in 2010, I shared the tale of the interstate slave trade as subtly expressed in Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home." Foster changed the title of his song by taking out the blatant connection to Harriet Beecher Stowe's  Uncle Tom's Cabin so as not to offend his slave state customers, but the noted songster still left in lyrics that, if listened to closely, made it hard to miss the sentiment. Foster may also have hinted at the interstate slave trade in the much more lively "Angelina Baker," which tells of love lost by sale.

Benjamin. R. Hanby's "Darling Nelly Gray," written in 1856, was not as subtle as Foster in his lyrical story of a woman sold away from her cottage "on the old Kentucky shore" to a Georgia plantation where "she toils in the cotton and the cane."

Hanby was born in 1833 in Rushville, Ohio, into an antislavery family that had ties to the Underground Railroad. Hanby wrote "Darling Nelly Gray" as a sophomore in college. The song was based on an incident when he was a child. When Hanby was nine years old a runaway Kentucky slave named Joseph Selby stopped at the Hanby home for assistance. Selby arrived ill with pneumonia and died while attempting to recover there. Before passing away Selby told the story of his "Darling Nelly Gray" who had been sold to Georgia and left him brokenhearted. Being distraught Selby attempted to make his way to Canada and freedom.

The song's sad lyrics are as follows:

There's a low green valley
On the old Kentucky shore,
There I've whiled many happy hours away,
A-sitting and a-singing
By the little cottage door,
Where lived my Darling Nelly Gray.

Oh! my poor Nelly Gray,
They have taken you away,
And I'll never see my darling anymore,
I'm sitting by the river
And I'm weeping all the day,
For you've gone from the old Kentucky shore.

One night I went to see her,
But she's gone the neighbors say,
The white man bound her with his chain,
They have taken her to Georgia
For to wear her life away,
As she toils in the cotton and the cane.

My canoe is under water
And my banjo is unstrung
I'm tired of living anymore;
My eyes shall look downward
And my songs shall be unsung
While I stay on the old Kentucky shore.

My eyes are getting blinded
And I cannot see the way,
Hark! there's somebody knocking at the door,
Oh! I hear the angels calling
And I see my Nelly Gray,
Farewell to the old Kentucky shore.

Oh! may Darling Nelly Gray,
Up in heaven there they say,
That they'll never take from me anymore,
I'm a coming, coming, coming,
As the Angels clear the way,
Farewell to the old Kentucky shore.

Here is a banjo and fiddle version via YouTube.


  1. Love the post and good to see other people spreading the love of History. Writing my own blog post about this same song when I stumbled on this post. I'll definitely revisit your blog to read more.

  2. In New Hampshire, which was heavy duty Abolition country, the tune for Darling Nelly Gray was made into a square dance tune with its own dance. Both usages survive to this day!

  3. This is interesting.
    Writing a book set in 1860, and looking for songs the kids might be singing....