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Thursday, June 10, 2010


Little Nancy Dawson
Haul 'em away!
Got her flannel drawers on
Haul 'em away!
Says our poor old bo'sun
Haul 'em away!
And a holly heigh ho!
Haul 'em away!

Thus runs a common (and unusually decent) stanza to the once-popular sailors' hauling song, "Nancy Dawson," often also known as "Cheer'ly man."

So who was Nancy Dawson, who was memorialized in bawdy song?  According to the online Oxford Dictionary of Biography, her real name was Ann Newton, and she was born in 1728.

She joined the company of a puppet-showman, Griffin, who taught her to dance, and was hired by Sadler's Wells as a figure dancer.  Being "extremely agreeable in her figure," as well as novel in her movements, she became a "far-famed toast," and was promoted to the part of Columbine.  About the same time she became the mistress of Ned Shuter, a Covent Garden comedian, and in 1763 she and Ned both featured in a satire written by George Alexander Stevens, The Dramatic History of Master Edward, Miss Ann, Mr Llwhuddwhydd, and Others.

Her big moment came in October 1759, when the man who was to dance the hornpipe among the thieves in The Beggar's Opera was taken ill. What happened next was straight out of Hollywood -- Nancy was plucked out of the chorus and danced the dance, and was an instant sensation. 

Her hornpipe was performed to a tune that was known as "Piss on the Grass" or "Piss on the Green," but instantly gained dignity as "The Ballad of Nancy Dawson" -- not that any words were sung as she danced.  It became hugely popular, even being mentioned by Goldsmith in the epilogue to She Stoops to Conquer.

The music seems to have been composed by Thomas Arne, and is popular still -- you can hum it, if you like, because it is the air of the old nursery song "Here we go round the mulberry bush."  The words, however, vary, according to the singers and the audience.

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