The Story of America’s Most Enduring Song
In the fall of 2011, at his annual Bridge School Benefit Show, Neil Young felt like he needed to say something about the song he was about to play with Dave Matthews. “[Here’s] something so old no one knows it,” Young joked, or warned.
He was both right and wrong. “Oh! Susanna” is so old that many know everything—and nothing—about it. As Ken Emerson, author of Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and The Rise of American Popular Culture writes: “No popular song is more deeply rooted in American consciousness than ‘Oh! Susanna.’ Everyone knows it, and yet, the more closely one considers it, the clearer it becomes that we scarcely know it at all.” How could a song so frequently hummed, whistled, and sung to by men, women, and children all across the country be so unfamiliar, as Young seemed to think? And why was he bothering singing it in the first place?
In 1847, Stephen Foster was a twenty-one-year-old amateur songwriter, trying his hand at local songwriting contests in Pittsburgh, hoping to get noticed. After struggling to find success, on September 11, at Nelson Kneass’s Eagle Ice Cream Saloon, the local minstrel troupe debuted Foster’s best tune yet. That night, Kneass’s singers surely sung the second verse of “Oh! Susanna,” a verse so old no one knows it:
I jump’d aboard the telegraph
And trabbled down de ribber
De lectrick fluid magnified
And kill’d five hundred Nigga
De bulgine bust and de hoss ran off
I really thought I’d die
I shut my eyes to hold my bref
Susanna don’t you cry
Like many of Foster’s compositions, “Oh! Susanna” was a blackface minstrel song. It was his breakthrough hit as a songwriter, a song that surely would have been a number one single if such a measurement had existed in the mid-nineteenth-century. The song quickly spread all over the country through its many publications and permutations on sheet music and as traveling minstrel troupes all over the country thrilled crowds with the tale of long-distance, lost, confused love, others began adapting Foster’s irresistible melody for their own purposes. “Oh! Susanna,” or some variation, quickly became a rallying cry and de-facto anthem for the ’49 California Gold Rush. Desperate love turned into greedy thirst, as the song reminded the forty-niners why they were leaving home in the first place: “I come from Salem City with a washpan on my knee / I’m going to California the gold dust for to see.”
“Oh! Susanna” resonates as both pop and folk. It’s tall-tale nonsense passed down from generations, something to study and teach to children, but it’s also a love song, the classic pop tale of a man going to absurd lengths to get to his girl. As it progresses, Susanna starts to matter less than the singer’s own hopes, dreams, and projections of his sweet Southern belle. The last line of the last verse is just as self-involved as it is brave and devoted: “And when I’m dead and buried / Susanna don’t you cry.” Susanna is in large part a prize to be rescued, a goal to be achieved, not necessarily a real person to be consoled. “Oh! Susanna” is the pop cry of the self: confessions presented as emotions, a vague yearning for more disguised as human love. Is Susanna a real person? Or is she more like Jay Gatsby’s Daisy, something to dream about, most real, perhaps only real, when imagined.
“Oh! Susanna” is chaotic. The singer, and his surroundings, is in constant motion. The song wrestles with that commotion—with progress, and modernity—as the singer tries to make sense of and utilize the many emerging technologies available to him in the mid-1800s (the telegraph, the steamboat, the locomotive) to help him get to his faraway love. But he’s all mixed up: “It rain’d all night de day I left / De wedder it was dry? The sun so hot I froze to def / Susanna don’t you cry.” Thoughts of Susanna are making him so crazy he can’t think straight: Everything is backwards. The telegraph is really a steamboat; the sun is making him freeze to death. He just might be in love.
But the singer of “Oh! Susanna” is caught up in something he never could have prepared for. The trip to Louisiana is a drastic wake-up call, and there’s the feeling of a tremendous, heavy passing of time in that difficult second verse, the sense that it’s time to grow up. The verse opens with an eager, hopeful holler from a kid who doesn’t know any better: “I jump’d aboard the telegraph,” but the man ending the verse (“I really thought I’d die”) is years, decades older.
In 1847, the country is growing up, too. “Oh! Susanna” is the story of a country coming to terms with itself and its problems. If the minstrel song does little to subvert or challenge the many traditional blackface tropes it contains, there’s a pointed reason the singer is having such a hard time getting to Louisiana. In 1847, traveling, restlessness, and a yearning for movement are all improbable luxuries for the assumedly enslaved narrator, and he’s faced with the consequences and punishments of leaving. He’s faced with violence and death, confusion and terror, detours and failures, and by the end of just the second verse it’s unclear whether he’ll make it out alive. There’s still a long way to go.
Perhaps that’s why both Confederate and Union soldiers would sing “Oh! Susanna” during the Civil War, when the country’s two halves never felt further from each other and when the nation’s future looked as hard and bleak as the journey to Susanna. The Union sang a song about Southern place and pride (“I says, I’se coming from de souf,” the singer boasts) while Confederates sang a song championing a runaway slave as they fought and died for the right to preserve the plantation. “It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry. The sun so hot froze I froze to death.” Both sides, North and South, reassured themselves about what it’d be like to finally reunite with a happier time, they reassured each other that everything would be all right. “Susanna, don’t you cry,” they must have sung.
In one of the earliest available recordings of the song, vaudeville artist Arthur Fields takes on Foster’s original. Fields’s version feels fresh, definitive, like it’s a clear beginning of the song’s diverse, surprising history in recorded American pop throughout the twentieth century. But Fields’s recording is from 1927, and “Oh! Susanna” already has eighty years of blood on its hands. Twenty-three years later, Al Jolson returned to the studio for what would end up being his final recordings. For his last album, Jolson decided to revisit some of the songs that once helped him get famous, so he recorded several of Stephen Foster’s finest plantation melodies. “Oh! Susanna” is now more than a century old, and Jolson bounces and hops through the words, treading a careful line. He’s revealing and concealing, jumping in and out of dialect, changing some words around in the second verse so that now five hundred men die. It would be the last time a major American entertainer sang a single word of the second verse in public.
When the singer-songwriter took center stage and pop music turned inwards towards first-person sincerity in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s no wonder Foster’s tune thrived. Emerson’s description of “Oh! Susanna” as “at once jaunty and forlorn, pin[ing] for the past even as it hurtles into the future” is about as good a summation of American pop as any, and Baby Boomers became the next generation to find a contemporary weight and worth in Foster’s tune. Connie Francis, like Jolson, included it on an album of American folk standards in 1961. Roger McGuinn recorded it for Turn, Turn, Turn. Johnny Cash sang it as a duet with James Taylor, who had placed his own version smack in the middle of Sweet Baby James, forever turning the song that once killed off “five hundred nigga” into a tender campfire confessional.
But the man who would most drastically adapt the song was just a traveling folkie. In 1964, a young singer named Tim Rose formed a group called The Big Three, which featured a guitar player named James Hendricks and his then wife, a young Cass Elliot. He had been tinkering with “Oh! Susanna” for some time, and, with his new group, he flipped the song on its head, speeding it up and switching it from major to minor, bright to dark. He left the lyrics unchanged but decided to spell out the word b-a-n-j-o in the last line of the chorus. Those small alterations were enough, Rose thought, to call it something new: “Oh! Susanna” was now “The Banjo Song.”
“The Banjo Song” grooved, even rocked. Before The Big Three formed, Rose had already fully fleshed out the new arrangement with his previous band, The Thorns. Rose was a scruffy-voiced guitarist playing with The Thorns when an impressionable, teenaged Neil Young first heard them in Winnipeg. “They were the original folk rock band, okay?” Neil has since claimed.
Fifty-some-odd years after Young first heard The Thorns, he took Rose’s arrangement of “Oh! Susanna” and made it the lead single and opening track of Americana, his latest album. This fall, Young will embark on a tour with Crazy Horse, the first with his trusty garage band in nine years, where they will surely play Foster’s blackface parlor ditty to massive rock crowds all across the country. Those in the crowd will be hearing something that was written long before their grandparents were born, a song that’s been forgotten, rediscovered, rehashed, and adapted to fit the contemporary American day and age for the last 160 years.
Maybe “Oh! Susanna” will open up the show like it does Americana, and for thousands of fans, craving a night of rock & roll, hungry to hear songs they remember and love from the ‘60s and ‘70s, their night of music will start with a song that was popular back in the ‘60s too, just a little number about a lovesick young man trying to get back to his girl. Maybe the first song that arena full of Americans will hear will be the one they’ve never been able to forget.