> Eliza Carthy > Songs > Nelly Was a Lady

Nelly Was a Lady

[ Roud 4273 ; Ballad Index Dean122 ; Stephen Collins Foster]

According to Sigmund Spaeth, A History of Popular Music in America, p. 106, this was “Foster's hit in 1849, now chiefly known as a barber-shop favorite.”

Steve Turner sang Nelly Was a Lady in 1987 on his Fellside album Braiding.

Sara Grey sang Pretty Saro in 2005 on her Fellside album A Long Way from Home. She noted:

I learned this Stephen Foster song from the singing of Helen Schneyer and I cry every time I hear her sing it.

Stephen Foster was born in 1826 in Lawrenceville now part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1846 he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. In 1849 he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the hit song Nelly Was a Lady, made famous by the Christy Minstrels. Many of Foster's songs were in the minstrel show tradition popular at the time. However, rather than simply caricaturing African-Americans, they show an empathy for the sufferings of the slave rare in works for the mainstream white audience of the time. He was the first white composer to portray blacks as loving husbands and wives, as in this song. This song was written in loving memory of an old slave’s dead wife.

Eliza Carthy sang Nelly Was a Lady on her and Norma Waterson's 2018 album Anchor.

Lyrics

Stephen C. Foster's Nelly Was a Lady Eliza Carthy sings Nelly Was a Lady

Down on de Mississippi floating,
Long time I trabble on de way,
All night de cottonwood a-toting,
Sing for my true lub all de day.

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

Chorus (after each verse):
Nelly was a lady,
Last night she died,
Toll de bell for lubly Nell,
My dark Virginny bride.

Chorus (after each verse):
Nelly was a lady,
Last night she died,
Toll the bell for lovely Nell,
My dark Virginny bride.

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

Now I am weary 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.

When I saw my Nelly in de morning,
Smile till she open'd up her eyes,
Seem'd like de light ob day a-dawning,
Jist 'fore de sun begin to rise.

When I see Nelly in the morning,
Smile till she opened up her eyes,
Seems like the light of day a-dawning,
Just before the sun begins to rise.

Close by de margin ob de water,
Whar de lone weeping willow grows,
Dar lib'd Virginny's lubly daughter;
Dar she in death may find repose.

Close by the margins of the water,
Where the lone weeping willow grows,
There lived Virginny's lovely daughter;
And there she in death may find repose.

Down in de meadow, 'mong de clober,
Walk wid my Nelly by my side;
Now all dem happy days am ober,
Farewell, my dark Virginny bride.

Down in the meadow, 'mong the clover,
I walked with my Nelly by my side;
Now all those happy days are over,
Farewell, my dark Virginny bride.

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Add: Nelly Was a Lady (Stephen C. Foster).