So they went laughing to bed and lay listening to Pa and the fiddle singing: ‘There was an old darkey and his name was Uncle Ned…’ — Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 5, “Sundays”
Uncle Ned (sometimes titled “Old Uncle Ned”) was one of the earliest songs written by Stephen Foster. Before being paid and acknowledged as a song-writer, Foster gave copies of his songs to both publishers and minstrel singers, and copyright laws at the time allowed whoever was in possession of the music to copyright it in their name. “Uncle Ned” was advertised as being published in 1848, several months before the first copyright was filed on it. A letter written by Foster states that he gave the song to William C. Peters for publication; Foster received no money for the song.
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. His honeymoon trip was to New Orleans, the only trip Foster made to the deep south he wrote so much about. The line about “Uncle Ned’s” fingers being “as long as the cane in the brake” was written without Foster ever having seen sugar cane growing.
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.
The first monument to Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh was erected in 1900: a seated Foster is looking down at “Uncle Ned” playing the banjo at his feet. In 1944, it was moved to its present location in front of the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh.
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. There was an old Nigger, his name was Uncle Ned,
He’s dead long ago, long ago.
He had no wool on de top ob his head,
De place whar de wool ought to grow.
[chorus] Den lay down de shubble and de hoe,
Hang up de fiddle and de bow;
No more work for poor Old Ned
He is gone whar de good niggers go.
2. His fingers were long like de cane in the brake,
He had no eyes for to see,
He had no teeth for to eat de corn cake
So he had to let de corn cake be.
3. When Old Ned die, Massa take it mighty bad,
De tears run down like de rain,
Old Missus turn pale and she look’d berry sad,
Kase she nebber see Old Ned again.
(from Little House in the Big Woods)
There was an old darkey
And his name was Uncle Ned,
And he died long ago, long ago.
There was no wool on the top of his head,
In the place where the wool ought to grow.
His fingers were as long
As the cane in the brake,
His eyes they could hardly see.
And he had no teeth for to eat the hoe-cake,
So he had to let the hoe-cake be.
So hang up the shovel and the hoe, Lay down the fiddle and the bow, There’s no more work for old Uncle Ned, For he’s gone where the good darkeys go.
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Click on the above images to view a copy of original sheet music of “Uncle Ned.” This image is of music copyrighted in 1848 by F. D. Benteen in Maryland.
This music is archived in the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, part of Special Collections at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library of The Johns Hopkins University. The collection contains over 29,000 pieces of music and focuses on popular American music from 1780-1960.
“Uncle Ned” (BW 5)
“There was an old darkey and his name was Uncle Ned”