Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Nancy Dawson

Nancy Dawson

Now, here's a familiar tune - or perhaps you know it by another title? - Nancy Dawson, the tune now used for our children's song "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush". The tune was named for a famous dancer during the reign of George II. A biography of Nancy Dawson was published in 1760, and she died in 1767. From a book of the entertainers of those times called Dramatic History of Master Edward, Miss Ann, and others, it seems she was a dancer at Sadler's Wells, and "she was extremely agreeable in her figure, and the novelty of her dancing added to it, with her excellence in her execution, she soon grew to be a favorite with the town; and in the ensuing season was engaged at Covent Garden playhouse. She became vastly celebrated, admired, imitated, and followed by everybody." She was supposed to have been very charitable and admired for her good qualities as much as her dancing. She was buried in the Chapel of St. George the Martyr, Queen Square, Bloomsbury, where her tombstone says only, "Here lies Nancy Dawson." There are several different portraits of her in existence, one being in Dr. Burney's Collection of Theatrical Portraits in the British Museum.

The tune became a popular English country dance, even in France, and harpsichord variations were written as Miss Dawson's Hornpipe. It appears in the ballad opera Love in a Village (1762) as a housemaid's song. Although Nancy Dawson died in 1767, I found the tune still quite popular years later, appearing in James Aird's first collection, printed in Glasgow about 1778, to William Vickers' collection made in the British Isles around 1772, to many American commonplace books by fifers, fiddlers and flute players from the Revolutionary War period and beyond.
This information comes from William Chappell's The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Times, Vol. II, (originally published in 1859). A recording of the tune is on the CD Pass'd Times. The sheet music and midi are on the music pages. Here's the tune and the words:

1. Of all the girls in our town,
The black, the fair, the red, the brown,
That dance and prance it up and down,
There's none like Nancy Dawson.

Her easy mien, her shape so neat,
She foots, she trips, she looks so sweet,
Her every motion's so complete,
I die for Nancy Dawson.

2. See how she comes to give surprise,
With joy and pleasure in her eyes;
To give delight she always tries,
So means my Nancy Dawson.