Darling Nelly Gray

Words & Music by Benjamin R. Hanby

“They have taken her to Georgia for to wear her life away….”

Noah Brooks

A powerful antislavery ballad, “Darling Nelly Gray” (1855) was called “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of song in its day. Its account of two lives lost to slavery is at odds with the paternalistic picture of the institution promoted by its theoretical apologists at the time.

The song opens as a deceptively sentimental Victorian ballad in the Stephen Foster vein, apparently mourning a lover who has died. But later in the song it’s revealed that Nelly has been lost not to death, but to commerce–she is a slave who has been sold “down the river” from Kentucky to the far harsher conditions of a sugar or cotton plantation in the Deep South. She would presumably never be heard from again by those left behind in Kentucky.

“Darling Nelly Gray” is the opening number of REUNION, performed as a music hall act in counterpoint to a stark slave narrative documenting one slave’s attempts to cross into the North from Kentucky and representative of the many such accounts published by antislavery activists.

Lyrics

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 darling Nelly Gray, they have taken you away
And I’ll never see my darling any more.
Now I’m sitting by the river and I’m weeping all the day,
For you’ve gone from the old Kentucky shore.

When the moon had climb’d the mountain and the stars were shining too,
Then I’d take my darling Nelly Gray,
And we’d float down the river in my little red canoe,
While my banjo sweetly I would play.

Oh! my poor Nelly Gray, they have taken you away
And I’ll never see my darling any more,
Now 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.

Oh! my darling Nelly Gray, up in heaven there they say,
That they’ll never take you from me any more,
I’m a-coming—coming—coming, as the angels clear the way,
Farewell to the old Kentucky shore.

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