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“Nellie was a Lady”

Pa would play some of the old songs, ‘to go to sleep on,’ he said… — By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 22, “Happy Winter Days”

Nelly Was a Lady (often “Nellie Was a Lady,” as in By the Shores of Silver Lake) was written by Stephen Foster in 1849 and sold to the New York publishers Firth, Pond, & Company for fifty copies of the music given to Foster, meaning that beyond the copies, he earned no money from the song. Apparently the agreement was made with the understanding that future songs written by Foster and published by Firth, Pond, & Co. would then pay royalties of two cents per copy. It is interesting to note that the first song published under this arrangement wasn’t a big seller, earning Foster just over $21.00 for almost ten years of sales. “Nelly Was a Lady” – if offered under the royalty terms – would have earned Foster a great deal of money because of its popularity.

Stephen Foster Collins (1826-1864) was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh. A musically gifted child, Stephen was educated in the private schools of Pennsylvania and worked as a bookkeeper for a steamship company in Cincinnati as a young adult. It was during this period that Foster made arrangements with several publishers to be paid royalties on future songs, usually 2 cents per copy. Foster married in 1850 and the couple had one child, a daughter.

In today’s music business, Foster would have earned millions from performances and sale of his music, but in the 1850s and 60s, it was a hard way to earn a living. Following an accident in New York in January 1864, Stephen Foster died with only thirty-eight cents in his pocket. His music lives on, in over two hundred songs and instrumentals from a twenty-year period.

Stephen Foster songs mentioned in the Little House books include: “Oh! Susanna,” “Uncle Ned,” “Nelly Was a Lady,” “Oh Boys, Carry Me Along,” “De Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.”


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

[chorus] Nelly was a lady,
Last night she died,
Toll de bell for lubly Nell,
My dark Virginny bride.

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

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

(from By the Shores of Silver Lake)

Nellie was a lady; last night she died,
Oh, toll the bell for lovely Nell,
My old— Vir-gin-ia bride.

CLICK HERE to listen.



Click on the above images to view a copy of original sheet music of “Nelly Was a Lady.” This image is of music copyrighted in 1849 by Firth, Pond, & Company, New York.    


“Nellie was a Lady” (SSL 22)
     “Nellie was a lady, last night she died”