Darling Nelly Gray
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Owen Sound's Black History

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Darling Nelly Gray

Slaves were bought and sold at the whim of their owners with no regard for family or friendship ties within the slave community. “Darling Nelly Gray” tells the story of two young lovers whose romance ended when Nelly was sold and taken to a plantation far away from that of her young man, Ned.

The two had planned to escape together to Canada and then to Owen Sound. Ned and Nelly lived on plantations close to each other. Due to the plantation owners’ practice of keeping slaves segregated, they met through an intermediary, an old Scottish professor. The professor was to help Ned escape to Canada, with a small amount of money and food. Ned was to find work, make enough money--$200—to send to the professor, who would purchase Nelly’s freedom and send her on to Canada to be with Ned.

However, on the night before the plan went into action, Nelly disappeared. Upon some careful enquiring, Ned discovered a stranger had visited the plantation, leading one empty horse. He looked over the selection of slaves, made Nelly his choice, and paid a substantial amount of money for her purchase. As no one recognized him, it was believed he was from a fair distance away and tracing Nelly’s whereabouts would be impossible. To complicate matters, slaves were known by their owner’s names, not their own, i.e. Jim Thompon’s Joe, So and So’s Maggie and so on. Nelly would have a new name in her new home.

To express his and Ned’s sadness, the professor composed a little verse, and then added a melody. Sung sorrowfully by his glee club, it soon became very popular and he eventually added more lyrics to create a full-blown song. The sheet music was soon for sale on newsstands, and, not long after, was sung, whistled and hummed in every state.

It is believed this little song was a major force in shaping public opinion on the issue of slavery, leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860.

The Lyrics:

There’s a low green valley on the old Kentucky shore,
There I’ve while 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, have they taken you away,
And I’ll never see my darling anymore.
I’m a sitting by the river and I’m weeping all the day,
For you’ve gone from the old Kentucky shore.

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.



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