"I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee, I'm goin' to Lou'siana, my true love for to see." That's a nice song about a person heading to serenade his beloved. But the song takes a turn there and creates images that have been in some of our minds since childhood: "It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry, Sun so hot I froze to death, Susanna, don't you cry." Huh?
Well, Stephen Foster, an Easterner, seems to be having some fun, singing about his treasured home area in the southeastern states of America. Except for one little detail: Foster was not born in the southeast, nor did he live there or even spend any significant time there. He made his home in Pennsylvania and New York and points North of the Mason-Dixon line. So how did he know so much about the South? It's suggested that he didn't, but he did know about love and home and loneliness and the things that are more human than regional.
But do you know the words, beyond the first verse and chorus, that is? This particular song is known for its humor, easy to play tune and innocuous words. At first glance. But today, in the 21st Century, you are not likely to hear all the original verses Foster penned. That is primarily because this song was written for minstrel shows and performed by white musicians in black face. Something that insults most of us, regardless of our race. Much of the original dialect, written into the song in the lyrics ("goin'" is the alteration of the original "gwine," Foster's perception of how the African American singers would sing the song, if they did, in fact, sing it).
At the risk of offending my readers, but in keeping true to history, however painful and offensive, I share with you the original second verse: "I jump'd aboard the telegraph And trabbled down de ribber, De lectrick fluid magnified, And killed five hundred Nigga. De bulgine bust and de hoss ran off, I really thought I'd die; I shut my eyes to hold by bref Susanna don't you cry." The perceived Black dialect is not kept true in every line, making it all the more painful to read (or sing). I know of many who have this song in their repertoires, including me, but most of us have adjusted the lyrics to eliminate the harsh dialect and omitting this verse totally.
But when we try to imagine the world of entertainment when this song was written, in about 1847 (it was debuted in Pittsburgh by a local quintet in September 1847), we must realize that the minstrel shows were not only an acceptable form of entertainment, they were immensely popular in the mid- to late-1800s. Using the "Black English" dialect provided an image, without further explanation, of an African American, using a traditional instrument often attributed to the Black and Appalachian cultures, as his companion on his journey. No one needs to clarify "picture this song being sung by a freed slave" or any other description. (Of course, we aren't clear whether the subject of the journey to Louisiana is a slave - escaped or emancipated or possibly on an errand for his Master - or connected to slavery at all.)
Linguistic researchers have given much attention to the different dialects across America and have learned that there is a definite set of rules of language usage for those who use, what has come to be nicknamed, Black English. Contrary to common opinion, the dialect has no connection to the intelligence of the user. Of course, Foster's use of "de" for "the," and "gwine" for "going," etc. are combined with the rest of the lyrics to make the storyteller sound less than intelligent (how does one freeze from the hot sun? He obviously doesn't know what he is talking about). So we have an African American traveling in pre-Civil War South (an unusual circumstance - going from state to state at that time in history) who is apparently uneducated (not a surprise for that time period, the locale, and his presumed culture) with one major element that binds him to almost every other person: love. He misses Susanna (did he escape slavery to find her?) and wants only for her to be happy ("Susanna, don't you cry") and for them to be reunited. He dreams about her, he sings about her, he longs to find her (was she sold to a slave trader and taken away from Alabama?). Anyone who has been in love can identify with these sentiments, regardless of the circumstances.
To read the four verses of this song, written by Stephen Foster, please refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh!_Susanna. That link also talks about the reference to "Susanna" and who she actually was; one theory being that she was Foster's sister Charlotte Susanna, who died the year before the song was introduced to the public.
As already mentioned, the tune was sing-able. It caught on and was soon used as a vehicle to spread other messages, many far from the life in the Southern U.S. A little more than a year after the song debuted it was used to publicize the California Gold Rush, under the monikers of "The 49ers' Oh! Susanna" and "Oh! California." The narrator sings of coming from "Salem City," a town many might presume to be Salem, Oregon, which was greatly reduced in male population with the discovery of gold in California. However, this is not the case: The Salem City referred to here is in the East (probably Massachusetts), as the lyrics are attributed to John Nichols who wrote it in November 1848 while himself on board the Eliza, heading to San Francisco (where many of the prospectors got "outfitted" with proper tools, clothing and food before heading to the gold hills). The first verse retains some of the words from the original version ("It rained all night the day I left . . .") but exchanges the musical instrument for a more useful tool: "washbowl" (AKA "washpan") - the pan used to wash the dirt from the gold when panning in the rivers - "on my knee" (a very real experience: we often picture the miners squatting by the river, balancing the large pans against their knees while searching the contents with great hope). And this person is not as eager as his Southern counterpart, seeking his love in Louisiana - he is looking forward to becoming rich, but also recognizes that he will miss the folks at home and is not at all pleased with the rough seas he encounters on the ship, sailing to California. As with our friend in the South, we don't know if this traveler ever located the object of his desire.
This is only one of countless songs that use Stephen Foster's tune for "Oh! Susanna" to carry their messages. The Mormon pioneers use the music on at least two songs - "The Missionaries' Handcart Song" and "Zack, the Mormon Engineer." Other groups have also found the tune to be easy to adapt to their chosen lyrics, but Stephen Foster songs are famous for having simple, yet pleasant, tunes. Perhaps you have put a set of lyrics to this music line.
My friend, folklorist and world-traveler, Chester Roistacher returned from a trip to one of the Asian countries with a question for those of us in a California folk song society: "What song is known all over the world?" The group of us gathered for some music sharing that evening threw out our guesses: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "John Denver's 'Country Roads,'" "Woody Guthrie's 'This Land is Your Land,'" and I suggested "Happy Birthday"? All were wrong. Chester picked up his ages-old mandolin and started to pick "Oh! Susanna!" We all joined in, singing along with gusto. Yes, that makes sense.
Emerson, Ken. Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Lingenfelter, Richard E. & Dwyer, Richard A. (Eds.). Songs of the American West. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1968.
Wikipedia. "Oh! Susanna," 12 January 2012, accessed 5 April 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oh!_Susanna.
Wolfram, Walt. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.