“Darling Nelly Gray”

Author: B. R. Hanby
Earliest date: 1856 (broadside, LOCSheet sm1856 600230)
Keywords: love separation slave
Found in: US(MW)


The singer recalls the time he spent with Nelly. But now "the white man has bound her with his chain;" he laments "Oh my darling Nelly Gray, they have taken you away And I'll never see my darling any more." He hopes they will be reunited after death

Supplemental text

Darling Nelly Gray
  Complete text(s)

          *** A ***

From sheet music published 1856 by Oliver Ditson Company
Title page inscribed
          NELLY GRAY
       SONG and CHORUS
       Words & Music by

There's a low green valley by 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 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.

2d Verse
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,
Whily 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 songs 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, to the last verse.
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.

H. M. Wharton, War Songs and Poems of the Southern Confederacy,
offers a version with the following variants (note the clear
attempts to reduce the song's anti-slavery tone):

1.1 by the old ] on the old
1.3 A sitting and a singing by the ] Sitting and singing in my
1.4 Nelly ] Nellie (and so throughout)

Cho.3 weeping ] watching
Cho.3 the old ] my old

2.3 in my little ] in our little

OMIT verse 3

4.3 my songs ] my song
4.4 While I stay on the ] If she's gone from my

5.2 somebody ] someone

OMIT final chorus


This was the first popular success of Benjamin Russell Hanby (1833-1867), who eventually wrote some eighty songs. It is reported to be based on an actual event; a runaway slave named Joseph Shelby died at the Ohio home of Hanby's father. Shelby was hoping to raise money to win the freedom of another slave named Nelly Gray.

In one of the odd turns of history, Wharton's _War Songs and Poems of the Southern Confederacy_ , following one Mrs. A. T. Smythe, suggests Stephen Foster as the author; even if the sheet music did not disprove this, the anti-Slavery sentiment would surely do so. - RBW

Cross references




  1. Dean, p. 73, "Darling Nelly Gray" (1 text)
  2. RJackson-19CPop, pp. 53-56, "Darling Nelly Gray" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Silber-FSWB, p. 251, "Darling Nelly Gray" (1 text)
  5. ST RJ19053 (Full)
  6. Roud #4883
  7. BI, RJ19053