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Intro

In a Nutshell

“Oh! Susanna” is a folk classic. Written by Stephen Foster (1826-1864), the “father of American music,” the peppy tune was introduced in 1847, just in time to become a Gold Rush favorite. Fortune seekers from across the country sang the song as they raced to California’s gold fields. Today, children memorize its words as they study this exciting period in American history.

Sort of.

The words we sing today are not actually the same words written by Stephen Foster in 1847, mostly because his lyrics were incredibly racist. The songwriter who wrote beautiful ballads about love and home like “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” filled this song with offensive imagery. Hey, all the cool kids were doing it!

So what exactly did the song say in 1847? Why did Foster write such an offensive song? And what does this does tell us about America in the 1840s?

About the Song

Artist Musician(s)
Album
Year1848 (written in 1847)
Label
Writer(s)Stephen Foster
Producer(s)
Learn to play: http://guitar.about.com/library/ChildrensSongChords/bl-oh-susanna.htm
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Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
Stephen Foster did not write “Oh! Susanna” for the Gold Rush, specifically. He debuted the song a year before gold was discovered in California, but the song swept the nation just in time to become a gold-seeker’s favorite. Roughly 100,000 people raced to California in search of adventure and profit in 1849, and many of them sang “Oh! Susanna” to kill time during the long trip.

“Oh! Susanna” is about far more than the Gold Rush, however (especially considering it isn’t about the Gold Rush at all). Written as a minstrel song, it offers an example of the racism-infused music that lay that at the center of this popular form of entertainment. Minstrel shows, in which white actors covered their faces with burnt cork and mocked African American slaves, were extremely popular in the North throughout much of the 19th century and even into the beginning of the 20th. They remind us that racism pervaded American culture and that, while eventually North and South would go to war, in part, over slavery, there were more similarities between the two halves of the country than we often acknowledge.

On the Charts

If the Billboard music charts existed while Stephen Foster was alive, his name would be at the top near constantly. “Oh! Susanna” was just one of the many extremely popular songs that Foster composed during his lifetime, including “Camptown Races,” “Swanee River,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”
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