What do you think this song is about? What are the clues? Who is singing the song? What is his reaction to the situation? He weeps all day. Why doesn’t he do anything about the situation? He is a slave himself. What action might he have taken? Run away to find her. How dangerous would that have been?
This song, written in 1856, became a very popular song for singing in parlors and was a very powerful tool of the abolition movement in the North before the Civil War. What was Abolitionism? Why do you think this song helped win people over to the antislavery cause?
Compare and contrast this song with Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” How did the songs encourage northern whites to sympathize with enslaved African Americans? Is one song more obviously antislavery than the other?
A version by the 2nd South Carolina String Band is available via Spotify.
A self-proclaimed American troubadour, the historian/musician Bill Schustik performs this song simply, accompanied only by guitar. Friends join him in singing the chorus in harmony, as arranged by Hanby, and as it would have been performed in someone's parlor.
Like Stephen Foster, Benjamin Hanby was a white, northern composer who wrote “plantation songs” that evoked feelings and sentiments that he imagined were experienced by enslaved people working in southern plantation labor camps. Born in 1833 in Rushville, Ohio, he graduated from Otterbein College in Westerville in 1858 and went on to work as a minister at the United Brethren Church in New Paris, Ohio (1861–63). Today Hanby is mostly remembered as the composer of the 1865 Christmas song “Santa Claus, or Up on the Housetop.” He died in Chicago in 1867.
“Darling Nelly Gray” was written as a minstrel song to be performed in the theater by professionals wearing blackface and costumes that mock and demean African Americans. Like many minstrel songs, “Darling Nelly Gray” was published in sheet-music form so that it could also be sung by amateurs in the parlor. Early minstrel songs (see “Jump Jim Crow”) were typically simplistic and mocked the speech of African Americans by featuring offensive dialect. But in the 1850s, as minstrel songs were increasingly designed for parlor performance, they took on a more refined character and expressed strong sentiments, more in line with the conventions of traditional parlor songs (see “The Blue Juniata” and “Hard Times Come Again No More”).
Unlike Foster, whose family members were Democrats opposed to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, Hanby came from a family of ardent abolitionists. In addition, Hanby’s family and friends helped escaped slaves reach freedom along the Underground Railroad. Despite the minstrel characteristics of the song, it was almost certainly intended to encourage whites in the North to sympathize with the plight of enslaved African Americans and support abolitionism.
Write a letter to the editor about the injustice of the situation from the viewpoint of a Northerner who has just been won over to the Abolitionist cause through this song. What arguments would you give for doing away with slavery?
What would be the point of view of each of these people?
The "white man"
Pick one of these people and write new verses to the song reflecting their point of view for this story.
Pretend you are Nelly or the singer of this song and write the letter you might have written to the other if you had been given advance warning that Nelly was to be sold to another owner.