Thursday, September 12, 2013

Down In The Canebrake (Lyrics, Sound File, & Comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides examples of and comments about the song "Down In The Canebrake" (also known as "Down In The Canebreak", "Nancy Dill", "Nancy Till", and "Come My Love, Come". The words "canebrake" and "canebreak" are also spelled as two words.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and historical purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owner.

"Down By The Canebrake" is an American minstrel song. The earliest version of this song is attributed to White Serenaders, an White American vocalist group, in 1851. The earliest recording of that song was by Frank Crummit, a White American, in 1928. A sound file of that recording & the words to that recording are found below.

DOWN IN DE CANE BRAKE by Frank Crumit 1928

cdbpdx, Uploaded on Feb 22, 2012
Lyrics: Down In De Canebrake
(As sung by Frank Crummit)

Down in the cane break close by the mill,
There lived a colored gal. Her name was Nancy Dill.
I told her that I loved her. I loved her very long.
And when I serenade her, this will be my song:

CHO: Come, my love, come. My boat lies low.
She lies high and dry on the Ohio.
Come, my love, come. Won't you come along with me,
And I'll take you down to Tennessee.

Down in the cane break, there's where I'll go,
Down where the yella moon is hangin' mighty low,
I know that she'll be waitin' beside the cabin door,
And she'll be mighty happy when I tell her once more,

Down in the cane break some happy day,
You'll hear the weddin' bells a-ringin' mighty gay,
There's goin' to be a cabin and in the trundle bed,
There'll be a piccaninny and all because I said,

Down in the cane break there's where I'll stay,
'Long side of Nancy dill till we are laid away,
And when we get to heaven and peter lets us in,
I'll start my wings a-flappin' and sing to her again,

[Several versions exist. Sometimes called "Nancy Till,"
"Nancy Gill," "Come Love Come." FM]

Quoted from
"Pickaninny (also picaninny or piccaninny) is a term in English which refers to children of black descent or a racial caricature thereof. It is a pidgin word form, which may be derived from the Portuguese pequenino[1] (an affectionate term derived from pequeno, "little"). In the Creole English of Surinam the word for a child is pikin ningre (li. "small negro"). The term pickaninny has also been used in the past to describe aboriginal Australians.[2] ...At one time the word may have been used as a term of affection, but it is now considered derogatory.[4]
I want to emphasize the fact that the word "piccaninny" is no longer publically used in the United States as it is considered to be offensive. Furthermore, spelling the word "Negro" with a lower case "n" is also considered to be offensive.

"A Canebrake is a thick, dense growth of cane or sugarcane.

Canebrake may also refer to:
Places in the North America
[A list is provided of several towns in the Southern region of the United States with the name "Canebreak", including Cape Caneveral, Florida "translated from the original Spanish CaƱaveral"; also lists a few towns in California with the name "Canebrake"."]

From Lyr Req: Down in the Cane Break [Hereafter given as "Mudcat Down In The Canebrake"

From:GUEST,John Hall
Date: 27 Feb 04 - 12:12 PM

I am researching canebrakes for a book, and would point out that the spelling of "canebrake" (a patch of cane) is a convention - correct only because the dictionary spells it that way. I suspect that the people in the South spelled it however they wanted... it is the same word, spelled "canebrake" or "canebreak", one word or two.

Point two is the implication of Nancy living down by the canebrake. Canebrakes grew in moist lowlands near the river. They were traditionally the home of fierce animals, escaped slaves, renegade Indians, outlaws and marginalized people. The singer of the song isn't courting a fine lady, he is begging a poor colored girl to get on the boat and run away with him.

Joan from Wigan
Date: 30 Sep 03 - 04:43 AM

For comparison, masato's link above [ Music 1800-1860] gives these words from 1851 (attribution: anon). The tune on the midi is altogether more ponderous than Crumit's light, fast-moving version. And while there are similarities, I don't think the melodies are the same.
"Nancy Till" (1851)

Written for and Sung by White's Serenaders.

[Source: pages 88-89 of
"Minstrel Songs, Old and New" (1883)]

Down in the canebrake close by the mill,
There liv'd a yellow girl, her name was Nancy Till;
She knew that I lov'd her, she knew it long,
I'm going to serenade her and I'll sing this song.

Come, love, come, the boat lies low,
She lies high and dry on the Ohio;
Come, love, come, won't you go along with me?
I'll take you down to Tennessee.

Open the window, love, O do,
And listen to the music I'm playing for you,
The whisp'rings of love, so soft and so low,
Harmonise my voice with the old banjo.


Softly the casement begins for to rise--
The stars are a shining above the skies;
The moon is declining behind yonder hill
Reflecting uts rays on you, my Nancy Till.


Farewell love, I must now away,
I've a long way to travel before the break of day,
But the next time I come, be ready to go,
A sailing on the banks of the Ohio.


Date: 04 Apr 07 - 07:32 PM

[regarding the earliest adjective used for Nancy Dill-or the named woman in the song "Down In The Canebrake]
"I bet the earliest adjective was 'yella' or 'yellow' {referring to an African American woman with light skin color}. "Colored" was probably a later 'politically correct' substitution. "Pretty girl" removes any racial referent and is probably an even later substitution for 'yella girl'."

[When the words "yella girl" or "colored girl" are sung, if the singer is White, he is pretending to be Black. This definitely wasn't supposed to be a song about interracial love.]

...the "Come Love Come" version posted by Lorraine on 28 Jun 97 - 09:40 AM [ seems to follow the African American dance song tradition of mixing & matching verses that don't need to follow the same story line but serve to extend the length of the song."

Date: 04 Apr 07 - 10:42 PM

" "De Boatmen Dance" is an old minstrel song by Dan Emmett ('Emmit') of the Virginia Minstrels, 1843. Nancy Till is 1851, also minstrel (she was yaller in the sheet music).

The song posted by Lorraine (--97) is cobbled together from several minstrel songs- the minstrels often mixed and matched so the song is 'in character.'"

Date: 05 Apr 07 - 02:31 PM

"Picking up on Azizi's post, cobbling together of verses from different songs also is a characteristic of African-American songs. Revitalization of existing material seems to be a universal human characteristic.

Were the songs by minstrel composers? The performed and printed versions were, but Emmett, Foster and others noted that some of their ideas were picked up from the singing of slaves and freedmen.
Conversely, minstrel songs were picked up by African-Americans. Lacking evidence, it is not easy to determine where particular ideas came from."

From:Goose Gander
Date: 05 Apr 07 - 03:35 PM

The "cobbling together of verses" seems common in American folksong, both black and white. See Pretty Little Pink for example, also Charming Betsy and Alabama Bound and so many others.

Thanks to the featured performer and the publisher of this soundfile. My thanks to all those commenters who I have quoted in this post. I re-post comments from other online sources to increase the opportunities for those comments & other commentary on those pages to be read.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. My father taught me the first verse of this song and the chorus. He said he learned it from his grandmother, but couldn't remember more verses. Off and on during my 68 years on the planet i have searched for the rest of this song but never saw it mentioned anywhere.

    This is the version that my father taught me:

    Down by the cane break, close by the mill
    There lived a yeller gal, her name was Nancy Dill.

    Come love, come, come along with me,
    And I'll take ya down, to Tennessee.
    Come love, come, my boat lies low
    And I'll take ya there on the Ohio.

    1. Greetings, Florentia Scott.

      You're welcome and thanks for sharing the version of "Down By The Cane Break" that your father taught you.

      It's interesting that the yellow (meaning light skinned Black) girl's name was Nancy Till in the version I quoted above and Nancy Dill in the version your father taught you.

      Best wishes!

  2. I came across a quote from this song in two books by B.M. Bower, and Googled the lyrics to see the rest of it, so that's how I wound up here. Thanks for for including the recording! :)

    In one of the books by B.M. Bower (Tiger Eye, published 1929), just the chorus was quoted. The second line is different from the lyrics here, so I thought I'd post them in this comment as another example of lyric variants:

    "Come love, come, the boat lies low—
    The moon shines bright on the old bayou;
    Come love, come—oh, come along with me
    And I'll take you down-n-n to Tennessee!"

    The way the word "down" is drawn out on the last line might indicate the presence of a slight melodic/rhythmic variation, too, in which more time was spent on that word than in the recording here. Or it could just indicate the artistic license of the musician in the book, who chose to linger on a word not usually emphasized.

    The other book I saw this in, Black Thunder, was first published in 1926, and also uses the bayou version, so this must have been the version Bower was most familiar with.

    1. Anonymous, thanks for sharing that information about those books that include versions of the song "Down in The Canebrake"!