Nelly was a Lady

(1849)

"Nelly was a Lady" was written and composed by Stephen Foster in 1849. As Ken Emerson writes in Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture:

"'Nelly was a Lady' was a milestone in Stephen Foster's development...By merging the minstrel ditty with the parlour ballad, he not only overcame and resolved some of his own musical ambivalence and conflict--the push-pull between respectability and rebellion, the bourgeois and the bawdy--he also reconciled black and white, rescuing blackface from the overt rascism that had characterized it from the outset."

--Christie Finn

Nelly was a Lady

Down on the Mississippi floating,
Long time I travel on the way.
All night the cottonwood a-toting,
Sing for my true love all the day.

Now I’m unhappy, and I’m weeping,
Can’t tote the cottonwood no more;
Last night, while Nelly was a-sleeping,
Death came a-knocking at the door.

Nelly was a lady.
Last night, she died.
Toll the bell for lovely Nell,
My dark Virginny bride.

When I saw my Nelly in the morning,
Smile till she opened up her eyes,
Seemed like the light of day a-dawning,
Just ‘fore the sun begin to rise.

Down in the meadow, ‘mong the clover,
Walk with my Nelly by my side;
Now all them happy days are over,
Farewell, my dark Virginny bride.

Nelly was a lady.
Last night, she died.
Toll the bell for lovely Nell,
My dark Virginny bride.

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