Friday, July 4, 2008

Nelly Bly

I was not familiar with Stephen Foster's "Nelly Bly" until Emma started playing and singing it on the piano. We both giggle at the line describing how Nelly "wakens up".

Foster wrote the song in 1850 as one of his "Ethiopian" songs. Although he wrote it in black dialect, Foster's instruction to minstrel singers was to sing it with sympathy, not derision. He thought that a song describing a loving black couple would humanize them in the eyes of the white population.

Curiously, the title of a song whose lyrics described domestic bliss became the pen name for a woman who is now an icon of the feminist movement. Elizabeth Jane Cochran took "Nellie Bly" as her pen name when she began her first newspaper job in 1880 with The Pittsburgh Dispatch. At 19 she was offered the job after she wrote a letter to the editor challenging a column that said that women who worked outside the home were "a monstrosity". Bly became famous as an investigative reporter. She is most well-known for working undercover in a women's insane asylum and for traveling around the world in 72 days--a feat PBS featured in one of its American Experience history programs.

Nellie Bly
by Stephen Foster

music clip

Nelly Bly ! Nelly Bly! Bring the broom along,
We'll sweep the kitchen clean, my dear,
And have a little song.

Poke the wood, my lady love,
And make the fire burn,
And while I take the banjo down,
Just give the mush a turn.

Heigh, Nelly! Ho, Nelly!
Listen, love, to me,
I'll sing for you, play for you
A dulcet melody.

Nelly Bly has a voice like a turtle dove,
I hear it in the meadow and I hear it in the grove.
Nelly Bly has a heart warm as a cup of tea,
And bigger than the sweet potatoes down in Tennessee.

Nelly Bly shuts her eye when she goes to sleep.
And when she wakens up again her eyeballs 'gin to peep.
The way she walks, she lifts her foot,
and then she puts it down,
And when it falls, there's music there
in that part of the town.

Nelly Bly! Nelly Bly! Never, never sigh;
Never bring the tear drop to the corner of your eye.
For the pie is made of pumpkins
and the mush is made of corn,
And there's corn and pumpkins plenty, love,
a-lyin' in the barn.

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