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"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 and today, children memorize its words as they study this exciting period in American history.
The words we sing today aren't 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?
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Stephen Foster is often called the "father of American music." Many of his songs are still popular today, more than 150 years after they were written. He has had a profound influence on American songwriting, evidence of which can be found in the works of those ranging from Charles Ives to Al Jolson to the Squirrel Nut Zippers and everyone in between. One of his songs, "My Old Kentucky Home," is the official state song of California—nah, we're just messing around; obviously it's the state song of Kentucky.
Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993)
Lott explores the enormously popular practice of blackface minstrelsy and the questions it raises. Why were white working class audiences so fascinated with Black expressions, language, and appearance? Were they drawn to the genre by admiration or contempt?
H.W. Brand, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (2002)
If you're looking for a great introduction as well as a compelling analysis of the Gold Rush, this is your book. Brand tells us the story of the gold seekers and their experience in California, but he also places this narrative within a larger story about the American Dream.
The popular but troubled songwriter.
Minstrel Performer, 1884
Although well past their heyday, minstrel shows persisted into the 20th century.
Thomas "Daddy" Rice, the father of minstrelsy.
Spike Lee takes his typically controversial look at the tradition of minstrelsy in this 2000 film. Determined to broadcast an offensive television show that will get him fired, Pierre Delacroix produces Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. Far from a failure, however, the show is an enormous success.
Stephen Foster (2001)
Stephen Foster's interesting yet tragic life receives fascinating treatment in this episode of PBS's American Experience.
The Gold Rush (2006)
California's dramatic and immediate transformation makes up a large part of this story, but perhaps more compelling is the account of the less gold-plated underside of the Gold Rush experience: the persecution of the Chinese, the impact on Native Americans, and the rise of the corporate mining interests that soon monopolized the profits.
Sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music, this is an excellent site. It provides an intelligent biography of Stephen Foster, a catalog of his works, and access to digitized source material.
Minstrel Show History
This site offers an engaging history of the minstrel show complete with timeline, images, and audio files. Hosted by the Old Time Radio Catalog, the site pursues the minstrel tradition through some of its 20th-century successors, like Amos and Andy.
California Gold Rush
The California state library has posted an excellent site on the Gold Rush. It provides images and documents useful to the exploration of everything from the discovery of gold to the life of a miner.
Arthur Fields, "Oh! Susanna" with Stephen Foster's Original Lyrics
A 1925 recording by Arthur Fields.
Dan Hornsby, "Oh! Susanna"
This 1927 banjo-backed rendition is close musically to the original minstrel arrangement of the song.
Al Jolson, "Oh! Susanna" in Blackface
Jolson played Edwin Pearce Christy of the Christy Minstrels in the 1940 film Swanee River.
James Taylor and Johnny Cash, "Oh! Susanna"
Taylor and Cash sing a modern, sanitized version of the song.
The Bulgarian Women's Choir, "Oh! Susanna"
Yep, it's a surprising rendition.