Even though Stephen Foster wrote “Oh! Susanna” just prior to the discovery of gold in California, the song became both traveling music and an anthem, a good-time tune that expressed the adventuresome spirit of America’s gold-seeking Forty-Niners. Foster is considered by many to be America’s first great songwriter. Only 21 when he wrote this song, he also wrote the classic ballads “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” Just as important, he focused his talents on American materials; he wrote songs about America’s people and geography, even its politics. And to top it off, “Oh! Susanna,” perhaps Foster’s most frequently sung song, was introduced in an ice cream parlor. You can’t get much more American than that.
But a pretty ugly side of America lies behind the song as well. Foster wrote the song for a minstrel show. In minstrel shows, white performers smeared burnt cork on their faces and spoke, sang, and danced in a buffoonish style believed representative of African Americans. Typically, in one part of the show, a dandified and conniving black man took center stage; in a second part of the show, a dawdling and ignorant plantation slave was featured. The portraits were gross caricatures, rooted in the racism that plagued all parts of the country, and “Oh! Susanna” was typical of the genre. The song was meant to be performed by a white singer in blackface, a racist parody of African American slaves. And the original lyrics were hugely offensive. African Americans were portrayed as blustering but ignorant; and the death of 500 was turned into a punch line.
The song started out with a harmless enough premise—an African American is heading south from Alabama to see his girl in Louisiana. Some of the traveler’s non-sensical observations might be dismissed as good-natured fun (“It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry; the sun so hot I froze to death”), but the broken English in which these lines were sung was meant to suggest that the singer was more simple than clever (“It rain'd all night de day I left”). If there was any doubt in the beginning, the verses that followed made it clear that the narrator was hugely ignorant:
“I jumped aboard de telegraph,
And trabbelled down de ribber,
De Lectrie fluid magnified,
And killed five hundred N!@@#%.
De bullgine bust, de horse run off,
I really thought I'd die;
I shut my eyes to hold my breath,
Susanna, don't you cry.”
Yep, as written, “Oh! Susanna” was a pretty obnoxious song. If the words don’t seem familiar—not at all like the “Oh! Susanna” you learned in grade school—, it’s because the racism has been gradually written out of the song. The offensive verse about the telegraph was the first to go. The line, “But if I do not find her, / Dis darkie'l surely die,” stuck around longer, but eventually it too was written out of the songbooks. The broken English believed typical of plantation slaves was also gradually cleaned up. Instead, the song was turned into a race-neutral story about a man off to see his girl. Also, a set of Gold Rush specific lyrics evolved over time; Laura Ingalls Wilder included a set in Little House on the Prairie that changed the destination and purpose of the banjo-carrying traveler:
“I come from Salem City with my wash pan on my knee,
I'm going to California, the gold dust for to see….
I soon shall be in Frisco, and there I'll look around,
And when I see the gold lumps I'll pick them off the ground.”
Yet this re-working of “Oh! Susanna” should not obscure its darker past. The song that swept America after its ice cream parlor introduction in 1847 had some ugly lyrics. The song that gold seekers sang as they headed off on their all-American adventure expressed the racism that was common in all parts of the country.
While today we celebrate Stephen Foster as one of America’s great songwriters, a musical poet that left behind wistful ballads about love and home, his personal story contained its own dark side. His marriage was troubled; in an era in which divorce was extremely rare, Foster and his wife separated more than once. And despite the popularity of his music, he made little money. Songwriting as a profession didn’t really exist back then, so he earned little off of the original distribution of his sheet music. As America’s copyright laws were weak, performers could use his songs without paying any sort of fee and publishers could re-arrange and print his music without compensating Foster at all. By his mid-30s, Foster was deep in debt, living alone, and drinking heavily. In 1864, he fell in a New York hotel, gashing his head on a washbasin. He died a few days later at age 37.
Some have argued that Foster and his work should be separated from the most viciously racist parts of the minstrel tradition. His songs were not as crude as others, his defenders say, and eventually he stopped using the dialect that mocked black slaves. He prohibited his publishers from illustrating his sheet music with base racist imagery, and he encouraged the performers of his songs to avoid cheap mockery of his slave subjects. In addition, defenders argue, Foster tried to give his black characters a certain dignity that other minstrel songwriters ignored. For example, in “Nelly Was a Lady,” Foster’s black narrator offers a moving tribute to his wife:
Nelly was a Lady;
Last night she died.
Toll de bell for lubly Nell,
My dark Virginny bride.
It’s a plausible argument, yet one that should be assessed with some skepticism. Well into the 20th century, historians from all parts of the country embraced a troublingly similar argument about the humane character of slavery. According to this argument, slaves were cared for by their paternal owners and introduced to the soul-saving teachings of Christianity. Sure, it was fundamentally wrong to deny people their freedom, but the day-to-day experience of slaves was tolerable. Many apologists went even further and argued that, given African Americans’ “intellectual inferiority,” they were actually better off as slaves than they would have been living free in the brutal market conditions of 19th century America.
By the middle of the 20th century, this argument had been torn to shreds, demonstrating that, like it or not, American history has a dark side that shouldn’t be ignored. This underside can be found lurking in some of the most seemingly innocent places. “Oh! Susannah” is now a peppy little song that we learn in grade school. We’re taught that gold miners sang it as they raced west in their hunt for money and adventure, but though it is now rendered lyrically safe for kids, we should remember that there was a time when upstanding members of the community joined in mocking America’s black population. Even though the song provided laughs and built camaraderie among the miners embarking on a grand adventure, the true negative impact of such racism was yet to be fully realized in America.