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Oh! Susanna – 1848

Stephen Collins Foster

“Oh! Susanna” is a song written by Stephen Foster. It was first published on February 25, 1848. Popularly associated with the California Gold Rush, the song is occasionally (and incorrectly) called “Banjo on My Knee”.

In 1843, the year Daniel Decatur Emmett established the Virginia Minstrels as the first blackface troupe in New York. Foster, 16, was working as a bookkeeper for his brother’s business in Pittsburgh. His brother, Morrison Foster, was a friend of the early circus blackface clown, Dan Rice, and the young Stephen came under Rice’s influence.

Foster also became aware of the new fad of “Ethiopian” songs. He also met a member of the minstrel troupe, the Sable Harmonists, who performed his first attempt, “Old Uncle Ned.” A contest in 1847 given by The Eagle Saloon stimulated the song called “Away Down Souf.” His next attempt was titled “Susanna” – advertised at “A Grand Gala Concert” as “[A] new song, never before given to the public.” The writer and musician Glenn Weiser has suggested that the song was influenced by an existing work, “Rose of Alabama” (1846), with which it shares some similarities in lyrical theme and musical structure.

A local music store, Peters & Field bought the song for $100, but before they could publish it, it was pirated by a New York publisher who printed it with the name of E. P. Christy as author. Christy’s Minstrels were rapidly becoming the most popular group in the Bowery theater district of Manhattan, and were to be the chief performers of Foster’s minstrel songs in the 1850s.

Probably by fortuitous coincidence rather than design, the song appeared in the public eye at the same time as the new polka fad was arriving from Europe. While minstrel songs prior to this time were considered uncouth, “Oh! Susanna!” thus provided an entry to the middle-class market.

In 1927 Columbia 15000D series Records released the same song titled “O’Susannah” in April (also under Regal Zonphone G20240) recorded Dan Hornsby (grandfather of Nikki Hornsby) singing with Young Brothers Tennessee Band. —Wikipedia



The traditional lyrics are arranged in four verses:

I came from Alabama, Wid a banjo on my knee,
I’m gwyne to Louisiana, My true love for to see.
It rain’d all night the day I left, The weather it was dry,
The sun so hot I froze to death; Susanna, don’t you cry.

Oh! Susanna, Oh don’t you cry for me,
cos’ I’ve come from Alabama, Wid my banjo on my knee

I jumped aboard the telegraph, And trabbled down the riber,
De lectric fluid magnified, And killed five hundred nigger.
De bullgine bust, de horse run off, I really thought I’d die;
I shut my eyes to hold my breath, Susanna don’t you cry.
CHO: Oh Susanna &c.

I had a dream the odder night, When ebery thing was still
I thought I saw Susanna A Coming down de hill;
The buck-wheat cake was in her mouth, The tear was in her eye;
Says I, “I’m coing from de south, Susanna, don’t you cry.”
CHO: Oh Susanna &c.

I soon will be in New Orleans, And den I’ll look all round,
And When I find Susanna, I will fall upon de ground.
And If I do not find her, Dis Darkie’l surely die,
And when I’m dead and buried, Susanna, don’t you cry.
CHO: Oh Susanna &c.

Because the second verse and colloquialisms were racist, modern verses have changed to be less offensive:

I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee,
I’m going to Louisiana, my true love for to see
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry
The sun so hot I froze to death; Susanna, don’t you cry.

Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me
cos’ I come from Alabama
With my banjo on my knee.

I had a dream the other night when everything was still,
I thought I saw Susanna coming up the hill,
A buck wheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye,
I said I’m coming from the south, Susanna don’t you cry.

I soon will be in New Orleans and then I’ll look around
And when I find my Susanna, I’ll fall upon the ground
But if I do not find her, this man will surely die
And when I’m dead and buried, Susanna don’t you cry.

The nonsense verse that opens the song hints that the song is not intended to be taken too seriously. The coarse African-American dialect of the original lyrics reflects the minstrel show tradition that Foster worked in.

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