"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.
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. 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. It was first published by W. C. Peters & Co. in Cincinnati in 1848. Blackface 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 twenty-one times from February 25, 1848, through February 14, 1851. Foster earned just $100 ($2,774 in 2016 dollars) for the song, 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, convincing him to become the first fully professional songwriter in the United States.
The name Susanna may refer to Foster's deceased sister Charlotte, whose middle name was Susannah.
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. Writer and musician Glenn Weiser suggests that the song incorporates elements of two previous compositions, both published in 1846: "Mary Blane", by Billy Whitlock, and "Rose of Alabama", by Silas S. Steele. He points out that the melody of the verse of "Oh! Susanna" resembles that of "Mary Blane", and the opening of the chorus of "Oh! Susanna" is almost identical to that of "Rose of Alabama". Moreover, the story lines of both "Oh! Susanna" and "The Rose of Alabama" involve a lover going from one Deep Southern state to another with his banjo in search of his sweetheart, which suggests that Foster got the inspiration for his lyrics from Steele's song.[self-published source]
The song contains contradictory 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...", which have been described as "nonsense". It is one of the 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
The song is one of Stephen Foster's best-known songs, and it also is one of the best-known American songs. No American song had sold more than 5,000 copies before; "Oh! Susanna" sold over 100,000. After its publication, it quickly became known as an "unofficial theme of the Forty-Niners", with new lyrics about traveling to California with a "washpan on my knee". A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch version uses Foster's melody but replaces the lyrics entirely.
- One of the earliest recordings, using the original "killed five hundred Nigger" lyrics, was released by Harry C. 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!.
- The song is sung by a band in Wilson (1944) during the 1912 Democratic National Convention.
- A 1955 novelty recording of the song by The Singing Dogs reached No. 22 on the US Billboard Pop Singles chart, and No. 13 in the UK.
- Bing Crosby included the song in a medley on his album 101 Gang Songs (1961).
- In 1963, The Big 3 recorded Tim Rose's composition "The Banjo Song", which sets Foster's lyrics to a completely new melody. Rose's melody was then used for Shocking Blue's 1969 hit Venus (Shocking Blue song). Neil Young and Crazy Horse covered Rose's version on their 2012 album Americana.
- A humorous recording of "Oh! Susanna" was the last track on the second album by The Byrds, Turn! Turn! Turn!, in 1965.
- James Taylor also included a version of the song on his second album, Sweet Baby James, in 1970.
- Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 19 October 2010.
- Richard Jackson. 1974. Stephen Foster song book: original sheet music of 40 songs. Courier Dover Press. p. 177.
- "Foster Stephen C(ollins)", Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale via HighBeam Research, 2001, archived from the original on 2013-10-11, retrieved 2012-04-25(subscription required)
- Zwerdling, Daniel (1997-09-13), "Stephen Foster", NPR Weekend All Things Considered, National Public Radio via HighBeam Research, archived from the original on 2013-10-11, retrieved 2012-04-25(subscription required)
- "Oh! Susanna". 2008.
- Behe, Rege (2009-06-28), "Stephen Foster really did write songs the whole world sang.", Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Trib Total Media, Inc.[dead link]
- 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved April 16, 2022.
- Cahill, Greg (2008-11-14), "Oh! Stephen Foster", Pacific Sun, Pacific Sun via HighBeam Research, archived from the original on 2013-10-11, 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)
- 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, archived from the original on 2013-10-11, 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)
- 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, archived from the original on 2013-10-11, retrieved 2012-04-25(subscription required)
- Michael Saffle. 2000. Perspectives on American music, 1900–1950 Taylor & Francis. p. 382.
- Gross, Terry (2010-04-16), "The Lyrics And Legacy Of Stephen Foster", NPR Fresh Air, National Public Radio via HighBeam Research, archived from the original on 2014-08-08, 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)
- "Oh! Susanna by Stephen Foster — Likely Origins". Celticguitarmusic.com. Retrieved 2011-07-01.[self-published source]
- Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.37. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
- Tuleja, Tad (1994), "Oh, Susanna", The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana, Macmillan Reference USA via HighBeam Research, archived from the original on 2014-06-11, retrieved 2012-04-25(subscription required)
- "MEMORABILIA COLLECTION HONORS COMPOSER MUSICIAN WROTE 'OH, SUSANNA'", The Cincinnati Post, Dialog LLC via HighBeam Research, 2002-03-21, archived from the original on 2014-06-11, retrieved 2012-04-25(subscription required)
- Stephen Foster Archived 2012-10-30 at the Wayback Machine, Meet the Musicians; accessed 2012.09.11.
- Lieder der Pennsylvania Dutch (II), retrieved 2012-04-25
- Whitburn, Joel (2009), Top Pop Singles 1955–2008, Record Research, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- "The Singing Dogs". The Official Charts Company.
- "Oh Susanna (The Banjo Song)", Allmusic, retrieved 2012-04-25
- [dead link]
- "Americana – Neil Young & Crazy Horse", Allmusic.com, retrieved 2012-05-09
- Interview with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds – February 1970, Vincent Flanders: His Personal Web Site, retrieved 2012-04-25
- "Turn! Turn! Turn!", Allmusic, retrieved 2012-04-25
- "Sweet Baby James", Allmusic, retrieved 2012-04-25
- "Oh! Susanna" on Grey Gull record 4125 c.1923 sung by Arthur Fields - Original lyrics
- Artist Nikki Hornsby's grandfather "Cheerful" Dan Hornsby recorded this song for Columbia Records #1268-D 1929
- Oh! Susanna: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- First edition (W.C. Peters, 1848) scanned by the Library of Congress