I came from Alabama
Wid my banjo on my knee,
The narrator may have come from Alabama, but his banjo came from Africa.
Banjo-like instruments have been played in many parts of the world, including Asia and the Middle East, but the “American” banjo evolved from African instruments that slaves reproduced in the South.
The African instrument did not have fret boards or tuning pegs; instead they consisted of strings stretched across a skin-covered gourd or shell body. The mechanics were basically the same, though. The African instruments even had very similar names, such as "banjar," "banjil," "banza," "bangoe," and "bangie."
I'se g'wan to Lousiana
My true love for to see.
If the narrator’s true love is in Louisiana, there may be a tragic reason why.
The narrator in this minstrel song begins by announcing that he is off to Louisiana to see his true love. What is not explained is why he is in Alabama and she is in Louisiana.
The most optimistic possibility is that he is a free Black man and she is a member of New Orleans’ unusually large free Black population. It’s not impossible. In 1849, there were 2,000 free Blacks in Alabama (compared to 253,000 slaves). In Louisiana, the number of free Blacks was much higher. They constituted 37% of the population of New Orleans in 1830. That number decreased over the next several decades, but there were still 25,000 free Blacks in Louisiana in 1840.
The more tragic probability is that the narrator’s true love was transported to New Orleans to be sold in the city’s slave market. Since the city could be reached by sea and river and provided access to the rapidly growing cotton regions of the Southeast, New Orleans served as a hub in America’s domestic slave trade. Many of the slaves sold there were sent from the states of the Upper South—Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. Declining tobacco profits had forced many of these to shift from tobacco to wheat production. Since wheat was less labor intensive, planters from these states sold many of their slaves by way of New Orleans to cotton planters moving into the Lower South and territories surrounding the Gulf of Mexico.
The slave markets of New Orleans were a nightmare. Thousands of slaves were crowded in pens down by the levee. Some came by boat down the Mississippi or via the Atlantic; others were marched south in chains. Shortly after arrival, however, the chains would be removed so that the bruises and cuts made by the chains en route would have time to heal before the slave was put up for auction. In a similarly twisted humanitarian act, slave traders brought in dentists to repair bad teeth and doctors to treat illness. They even bought the slaves new clothes in the hope that a well-dressed slave would bring a higher price. You know those slave owners, always thinking of others first.
I jumped aboard de telegraph,
And trabbelled down de ribber,
De Lectrie fluid magnified,
And killed five hundred N----s.
This line is intended to expose the slave’s ignorance, but there probably weren’t many people in the audience who understood how the new fangled telegraph worked in the first place.
Stephen Foster figured he would get a laugh from his white audience by poking fun at the black narrator’s poor grasp of technology, but most likely few in the audience could have explained the telegraph in 1847 (plenty of people have a hard enough time explaining it now).
The technological building blocks for the telegraph dated back to the early 19th century. The key innovation was the development of the electromagnet in 1825 by William Sturgeon. Ten years later, Samuel Morris discovered how to make electrical current deflect an electromagnet and imprint codes on paper. In 1844, a test line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore was completed.
So, in 1847 when Foster wrote “Oh! Susanna,” the telegraph was just a few years old. Most people probably realized that it was a communication device and not some sort of vehicle that traveled on the river, but few would have been able to explain any better than Foster’s narrator how the “Lecktrie fluid” actually carried messages across vast spaces.
We’re not even going to get into how absurdly racist that last line is.
The buckwheat cake war in her mouth,
Although the line was intended to draw a mean-spirited laugh, those eating buckwheat cakes were really ahead of their times.
The line, like most of the song, was intended to paint a mocking portrait of the slaves at the center of the story. In the narrator’s dream, his girl comes running to him with her mouth stuffed with buckwheat cake. What Foster and other 19th-century buckwheat cake mockers did not realize is that buckwheat is a pretty healthy food.
Buckwheat, despite its name, is neither wheat nor grass. It is a broad-leafed plant that is part of the same family as rhubarb. It seems to have originated in Asia before spreading to Europe and then America. It was heavily produced in the United States during the 19th century and used as flour and livestock feed.
Buckwheat production decreased in the 20th century because other staples such as corn and wheat responded better to modern fertilizers. However, in recent years buckwheat has experienced a revival among many health-conscious eaters as it is gluten-free and helps reduce cholesterol.
I come from Salem City
There is a town named Salem in more than half of the states.
In the lyrics included in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, the narrator sets off from Salem City, not Alabama. The only problem is that there are dozens of towns in the United States named Salem.
Since Wilder’s books were based on her childhood near Independence, Kansas, a first guess might be that the Salem referenced in this line is either Salem, Oklahoma, or Salem, Missouri. They are both more than 300 miles from Independence, but they are the closer than any of the more than 20 other Salems.
A landlocked Salem, however, would be a poor guess, as the gold seeker of the song traveled to California by boat. Clearly a miner setting off from the Midwest would have taken an overland route to the West Coast. This logic also allows us to cross off the Salems in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, and Wisconsin. Salem, Kentucky, and Salem, West Virginia, would also seem unlikely.
That leaves us with the Salems located in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Virginia. We can probably eliminate Oregon; the city was founded in 1842, less than a decade before the Gold Rush, and the dramatic lines in subsequent verses would hardly describe a quick sail down the West Coast.
Among the remaining candidates, Salem, Massachusetts, is the safest guess. Thanks to the witch trials of 1692, it was the most famous Salem in America. It is also a port city, and Salem port records (kept for a time by ) reveal that ships did leave the port filled with prospectors headed for California in 1849.
With my wash pan on my knee.
If this miner were like most, he would have quickly abandoned his wash pan for more efficient ways of finding gold.
This line conjures up a familiar gold mining image: the solitary miner working a creek with a pan. By gently swirling a pan filled with water and river bottom dirt, the gold, heavier than the pebbles that surrounded it, would remain in the pan as the worthless materials washed over its edge.
Many miners did use pans, especially during the early months of the gold rush, but they quickly adopted more efficient methods of locating the precious metal. For example, miners often worked in teams, using rockers or cradles and long toms to separate the gold flakes and nuggets from the pebbles that surrounded them. These simple devices were built on the same premise as the pan: by pouring dirt and water into the contraption, the heavier gold would ultimately sink and be caught on ribs or slats while the other rocks and debris washed away.
This traveling miner was doing one thing right, however: he was bringing his own pan. Many California entrepreneurs quickly learned that the most reliable profits lay in supplying the gold-hungry newcomers. They bought up all of the picks, shovels, and pans and sold them at outrageous mark-ups. A 30¢ metal pan could be sold for as much as $30 to an unprepared greenhorn.