The Real Susanna

Posted: January 11, 2014 in Articles
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The song, “Oh! Susanna”, was popular when our parents were growing up. They sang it at their elementary schools. Probably most people are familiar with at least the following lyrics (it’s really all our parents can remember): “Oh! Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me. For I’ve come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.”

However, there is also another version written around the time of the California Gold Rush, which goes, “Oh! Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me. For I’ve gone to California with my tin pan in my knee.”

Like all folk songs, both versions reveal interesting tidbits about the time in which they were written and sung. The original version was written by Stephen Foster in 1847. It would be considered hideously racist to sing this song today, but was obviously acceptable in its day. Here is one of the milder verses of the original song:

“I had a dream de udder night, when ebry ting was still;
I thought I saw Susanna dear, coming down de hill,
De buckwheat cake was in her mouf, de tear was in her eye,
I says, I’se coming from de souf, –Susanna don’t you cry.”

Clearly this is not a song which would be sung in today’s classrooms.

Here is a verse from the California Gold Rush version:

“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-
I’ll scrape the mountains clean, my boys, I’ll drain the rivers dry
A pocket full of rocks bring home so brothers, don’t you cry.”

This verse seems better.

Anyway, American folk songs are very enjoyable to play, sing, and listen to. You can learn a lot about the early days in America and you can also learn about American folk heroes, like John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and Johnny Appleseed. As younger children, we used to listen to the Wee Sing “America” tape where they have a few good folk tunes, but mostly, you can find books containing American Folk Tunes at the public library. Our library has a large collection of all kinds of folk tunes and they are all set to piano.

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