Beyond Tourism: America's Yesteryear

A blog of American History

Darling Nelly Gray April 14, 2018

People familiar with how the music industry works knows that Big Recording Labels are always trying to pull one over on their clients in order to keep the profits from themselves. Apparently it has been going on much longer than 1950s when do-wop bands were all the rage.
One such example is with the song My Darling Nelly Gray written by Benjamin Russel Hanby in 1856  while he was attending Otterbein College it was eventually  published by Oliver Ditson & Co. That’s when the trouble started.

His music teacher, Miss Cornelia Walker, to whom the song was dedicated, suggested that he send the manuscript to a publisher. He submitted it to the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston. He assumed that the song had been rejected until his sister heard it sung at a recital. It was soon discovered that the Ditson Company had published the song under Hanby’s name but secured the copyright for themselves. Hanby sued the firm, but won only fifty dollars and twelve free copies of the sheet music.

Which is really too awful for words because this song hit it big time. When I say big it would probably be Platinum today. Because even though it is very much an anti-slavery song it became hugely popular in both the North and the South. Although it has been said that the South changed up some of the wording. So the Ditson company made out like bandits.

The song became popular among Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and has often been regarded as the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of song.

The inspiration for the song came from his Father’s involvement working the Underground Railroad. At the time Benjamin Hanby was 9 years old.

Hanby was by deeply affected by the story of a fugitive slave who took refuge in the Hanby home in 1842 while escaping from Kentucky. Before his death from pneumonia, he told about his sweetheart Nelly Gray, who had been sold into slavery in Georgia. This was the inspiration for the song “Darling Nelly Gray, ” which Hanby composed in 1856 while attending Otterbein College in Westerville.

Lyrics:
There’s a low, green valley, on the old Kentucky shore.
Where I’ve whiled many happy hours away,
A-sitting and a-singing by the little cottage door,
Where lived my darling Nelly Gray.
Chorus
Oh! my poor Nelly Gray, they have taken you away,
And I’ll never see my darling any more;
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 climbed 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.
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 any more;
My eyes shall look downward, and my song shall be unsung
While I stay on the old Kentucky shore.
My eyes are getting blinded, and I cannot see my 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.
Chorus
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!

Listen to a rendition of Darling Nelly Gray here

sources:
1. http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_670722
2. http://www.ohiocivilwar150.org/omeka/items/show/1942
3. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/index.php?title=Benjamin_Hanby&rec=202

 

 

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