Oh! Susanna

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This article is about the folk song. For the 1936 film, see Banjo on My Knee (film). For other uses, see Oh! Susanna (disambiguation).
"Oh! Susanna"
Oh! Susanna 1.jpg
Original sheet music
Published Cincinnati: W. C. Peters & Co. (1848)
Form Strophic with chorus
Composer(s) Stephen Foster
Lyricist(s) Stephen Foster
Language English

"Oh! Susanna" is a minstrel song by Stephen Foster (1826–1864), first published in 1848. It is among the most popular American songs ever written. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[1]


In 1846, Stephen Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster wrote "Oh! Susanna", possibly for his men's social club.[2][3] The song was first performed by a local quintet at a concert in Andrews' Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1847.[4] It was first published by W. C. Peters & Co. in Cincinnati in 1848.[5] Other minstrel troupes performed the work, and, as was common at the time, many registered the song for copyright under their own names. As a result, it was copyrighted and published at least 21 times[6] from February 25, 1848, through February 14, 1851.[3] Foster earned just $100 ($2,653 in 2012 dollars[7]) for the song,[8] but its popularity led the publishing firm Firth, Pond & Company to offer him a royalty rate of two cents per copy of sheet music sold,[3] convincing him to become America's first fully professional songwriter.[9][10]

The name Susanna may refer to Foster's deceased sister Charlotte, whose middle name was Susannah.[11] There are however others that dispute that.[who?]


The song blends together a variety of musical traditions. The opening line refers to "a banjo on my knee", but the song takes its beat from the polka, which had just reached the U.S. from Europe.[4][12] Glenn Weiser suggests the song was influenced by an existing work, "Rose of Alabama" (1846), with which it shares some similarities in lyrical theme and musical structure.[13]

The first two phrases of the melody are based on the major pentatonic scale.[14] About this sound Play 

The lyrics are largely nonsense,[3] as characterized by lines such as "It rain'd all night the day I left, The weather it was dry, The sun so hot I froze to death..." (first verse) and "I shut my eyes to hold my breath..." (second verse). It is one of the few songs by Foster that use the word "nigger" (others are "Old Uncle Ned" and "Oh! Lemuel", both also among Foster's early works), which appears in the second verse ("De lectric fluid magnified, And killed five hundred nigger.").

Popularity and adaptations[edit]

The song is not only one of Stephen Foster's best-known songs,[15] but also one of the best-known American songs.[16] No American song had sold more than 5,000 copies before; "Oh! Susanna" sold over 100,000.[17] After its publication, it quickly became known as an "unofficial theme of the Forty-Niners",[15] with new lyrics about traveling to California with a "washpan on my knee".[6] A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch version uses Foster's melody but replaces the lyrics entirely.[18]

Lyrics themselves:
I come from Alabama with my Banjo on my knee—
I'm goin' 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, do not cry for me;
I come from Alabama, with my Banjo on my knee.
2. (This verse is rarely sung in its original form today; to avoid the racism of the original lyrics, the word "Nigger" is often replaced with "chigger")
I jumped aboard the telegraph and traveled down the river,
Electric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred Nigger.
The bullgine bust, the horse ran off, I really thought I'd die;
I shut my eyes to hold my breath—Susanna, don't you cry.

I had a dream the other night, when everything was still;
I thought I saw Susanna dear, a comin' down the hill.
The buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye,
I says, "I've coming from the South"-Susanna, don't you cry.

An unauthorized[citation needed] fourth verse was added:[19]

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

Modern version[edit]

Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee!
Going to Louisiana, my true love for to see
Oh Susannah! Oh don't you cry for me!
For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry
The sun so hot I froze to death, Susannah don't you cry
Oh Susannah! Oh don't you cry for me!
For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee!

Optional third verse[edit]

I had a dream the other night, when everything was still
I thought I saw Susannah dear a-comin' down the hill
A buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye
I said I come from dixieland, Susannah don't you cry!
Oh Susannah! Oh, don't you cry for me!
For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee
Oh Susannah! Oh don't you cry for me!
For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee

Notable recordings[edit]

One of the earliest recordings, using the original "I killed five hundred niggers" lyrics, was released by Harry Clinton Browne in 1916 (Columbia COL A-2218). Browne also released other openly racist songs that same year, including Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!. A 1955 novelty recording of the song by The Singing Dogs reached #22 on the US Billboard Pop Singles chart.[20] A humorous recording of "Oh! Susanna" was the last track on the second album by The Byrds, Turn! Turn! Turn!, in 1965.[21][22] James Taylor also included a version of the song on his second album, Sweet Baby James, in 1970.[23]

In 1963, The Big 3 recorded Tim Rose's composition "The Banjo Song," which sets Foster's lyrics to a completely new melody.[24] Neil Young and Crazy Horse covered Rose's version on their 2012 album Americana.[25]

The website JibJab used the tune to create a song called "Big Box Mart", about big box stores.


Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny sang that song in the 1942 Merrie Melodies cartoon, The Wacky Wabbit.

The song was used in a 1995 Velveeta commercial for "1/3 Less Fat than Cheddar."


  1. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Richard Jackson. 1974. Stephen Foster song book: original sheet music of 40 songs. Courier Dover Press. p. 177.
  3. ^ a b c d "Foster Stephen C(ollins)", Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale via HighBeam Research, 2001, retrieved 2012-04-25 (subscription required)
  4. ^ a b Zwerdling, Daniel (1997-09-13), "Stephen Foster", NPR Weekend All Things Considered, National Public Radio via HighBeam Research, retrieved 2012-04-25 (subscription required)
  5. ^ "Oh! Susanna". 2008. Retrieved September 2011.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  6. ^ a b Behe, Rege (2009-06-28), "Stephen Foster really did write songs the whole world sang.", Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Trib Total Media, Inc. via HighBeam Research, retrieved 2012-04-25 (subscription required)
  7. ^ Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved October 21, 2016. 
  8. ^ Cahill, Greg (2008-11-14), "Oh! Stephen Foster", Pacific Sun, Pacific Sun via HighBeam Research, retrieved 2012-04-25, But popularity didn't translate into success. His ebullient "Oh! Susanna" became the theme song of the Gold Rush, but Foster earned just $100 for that hit because crooked publishers failed to pay his royalties. (subscription required)
  9. ^ Marks, Rusty (2001-04-22), "ON TELEVISION: Stephen Foster: Quintessential songwriter lived in music, died in ruin", Sunday Gazette-Mail, Gazette Daily Inc. via HighBeam Research, retrieved 2012-04-25, The song, written in 1847, soon spread throughout the country. Foster decided to become a full-time songwriter, a vocation no one had bothered to pursue until then. (subscription required)
  10. ^ PITTSBURGH NATIVE SON AND SONGWRITER STEPHEN FOSTER TO BE INDUCTED INTO NASHVILLE SONGWRITERS HALL OF FAME OCT. 17., US Fed News Service, Including US State News. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. via HighBeam Research, 2010-10-16, retrieved 2012-04-25 (subscription required)
  11. ^ Michael Saffle. 2000. Perspectives on American music, 1900-1950 Taylor & Francis. p. 382.
  12. ^ Gross, Terry (2010-04-16), "The Lyrics And Legacy Of Stephen Foster", NPR Fresh Air, National Public Radio via HighBeam Research, retrieved 2012-04-25, Mr. EMERSON: I think that Stephen Foster really did create popular music as we still recognize it today. He did it because he took together all these strands of the American experience. That song is extremely Irish in its origins, just as other songs are extremely African-American, just as others are extremely Italian and operatic, or sometimes German, and even Czechoslovakian. For instance, the beat of "Oh! Susanna" is the beat of a polka. He's clearly effectively merged them into a single music. And I think he merged them in way that appeals to the multicultural mongrel experience of America in its history and culture. (subscription required)
  13. ^ "Oh! Susanna by Stephen Foster — Likely Origins". Celticguitarmusic.com. Retrieved 2011-07-01. 
  14. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.37. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  15. ^ a b Tuleja, Tad (1994), "Oh, Susanna", The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana, Macmillan Reference USA via HighBeam Research, retrieved 2012-04-25 (subscription required)
  16. ^ "MEMORABILIA COLLECTION HONORS COMPOSER MUSICIAN WROTE 'OH, SUSANNA'", The Cincinnati Post, Dialog LLC via HighBeam Research, 2002-03-21, retrieved 2012-04-25 (subscription required)
  17. ^ Stephen Foster, Meet the Musicians; accessed 2012.09.11.
  18. ^ Lieder der Pennsylvania Dutch (II), retrieved 2012-04-25 
  19. ^ Not evidence of lack of authorization per se (so cit-needed tag should not be removed) but the 4th verse is -not- present in the first edition published as scanned by the Library of Congress- http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/sm1848.450780 - one does note.
  20. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2009), Top Pop Singles 1955-2008, Record Research, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 
  21. ^ Interview with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds - February 1970, Vincent Flanders: His Personal Web Site, retrieved 2012-04-25 
  22. ^ "Turn! Turn! Turn!", Allmusic, retrieved 2012-04-25 
  23. ^ "Sweet Baby James", Allmusic, retrieved 2012-04-25 
  24. ^ "Oh Susanna (The Banjo Song)", Allmusic, retrieved 2012-04-25 
  25. ^ "Americana - Neil Young & Crazy Horse", Allmusic.com, retrieved 2012-05-09 

External links[edit]