Wednesday, August 29, 2007

American Songs 2 Sneak Preview: Oh Susanna

In anticipation of the release of my new CD, American Songs vol. 2, I've been giving away a free "sneak preview" song each week. I hope you've enjoyed Oh Sister and Unclouded Day. This week's song is one of the most famous American folk songs of all time. I'm willing to bet you've heard it once or twice. :)

Please spread the word: all I ask in return for these free songs is that you please send them on to others who might enjoy them as well! Click here to email this post to a friend.

Here's a quick preview:

Story behind the song: Usually, you hear "Oh Susanna" performed as an upbeat, rousing, clap-along kind of song. Which I love. But I also love the poignancy of the melody and the very real heartbreak and longing that are in the lyrics. I wanted to find a way to really bring out the story of this song...the traveler returning from a long absence (likely from fighting in the Civil War) doing everything he can to drag himself home to his true love, knowing that even with all his effort he may very well never see her again. The way I hear the song, the singer is trying to cover up some of this sadness and fear with gaiety (the banjo) and bravado (The sun so hot I froze to death, Susanna don't you cry) in order to convince himself and his love that everything will, truly, be all right in the end. So in my version, you will hear a different kind of "Oh Susanna"...the version that maybe he would have sung to himself at night when he doesn't think anyone else is around. Please feel free to leave me a comment and let me know what you think of it.

A note on the songwriter: Stephen Foster was 21 when he wrote "Oh Susanna" in 1847, and it was almost immediately a hit. It became a theme song for the gold rush era (they sang "I'm goin' to California with my washpan on my knee!"), and has since been performed countless times all over the world. Stephen Foster was a meticulous and prolific songwriter (he wrote over 200 songs in his short life of 38 years). His melodies are timeless, and his manuscripts show that he put a lot of effort into creating lyrics that were both precise and emotionally gripping. And yet, many of his songs pose a problem to modern listeners and performers. In many of his works, including "Oh Susanna," Stephen Foster wrote in imitation of the dialect of African-American slaves which is at times shockingly condescending, over-simplified, and cartoonish. At the same time, he also wrote songs that depicted slaves as human beings with very real feelings of pain, love, and sorrow, which was not a particularly common view at the time. Here are some interesting links:
Bonus question: What is your earliest or best memory of "Oh Susanna" (when did you first hear it, learn it, sing it, or do you have any particular memories associated with the song)? Leave a comment below and the day the CDs arrive, I'll pick one comment randomly and send that person a free copy of American Songs, volume 2. Note: Just so you know, if you leave an anonymous comment (which of course you are welcome to do), I won't know who you are and won't be able to include you in the random draw. 9/15/07--The random-draw is now closed. Congratulations to Diane Pollock...I hope you enjoy the CD!

Lyrics (click on the title to download the free song):

Oh Susanna by Stephen Foster

I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee
I'm goin' to Lou'siana my true love for to see
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry
The sun so hot I froze to death, Susanna don't you cry

Oh Susanna, oh don't you cry for me
I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee

I had a dream the other night when everything was still
I dreamed I saw Susanna a-comin' down the hill
A buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye
Says I, I'm comin' from the South, Susanna don't you cry

Oh Susanna, oh don't you cry for me
I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee

I soon will be in New Orleans, and then I'll look around
And when I find Susanna, I'll fall onto the ground
And if I do not find her, then surely I will die
But when I'm dead and buried, Susanna don't you cry

Oh Susanna, oh don't you cry for me
I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee


Diane Pollock said...

It was the first solo song I played on the violin in grade school!

Emilie Schmitz said...

I remember my dad whistling it as he swung a hammer sitting on the roof of my new horse barn in Monico. Then, we would dance around the kitchen singing it as my brother & I washed dishes late at night - belting it out as loud as we could! :) Emilie Schmitz (Probst)

Josephine Cameron said...

It *is* a good dish-washing melody, isn't it?

Kathy said...

I have always wondered what "the buckwheat cake was in her mouth" meant. Did that have some sort of symbolic or superstitious meaning, indicating death, or perhaps a delicate way of indicating pregnancy? Or maybe I am reading too much into it, and she was merely eating and feeling sad.

Josephine Cameron said...

Hi Kathy.
That's a really interesting question. From the reading I've done on Stephen Foster and his songs, I would imagine the buckwheat cake was important in two ways:

First of all, Stephen Foster was a master of form, and there simply isn't another word that rhymes with "south" other than "mouth". So he had to put something in it. :)

Secondly, I believe "Oh Susanna" (like many of Stephen Foster's early songs) was written for the minstrel stage. Minstrel songs were often sung in blackface and portrayed African-Americans as jolly, happy, tap-dancing fools who loved the South and all it stood for. A buckwheat cake is definitely something that would have been a staple of the poor, southern Black diet. So putting a buckwheat cake in Susanna's mouth firmly places her in a certain economic and social category and removes her from the white, upper/middle class audience who would have first encountered her song.

The interesting problem with Stephen Foster (as I mentioned in the post above) is exemplified in "Oh Susanna". In addition to being deliberately and horribly racist in the verses, he also gave his African-American characters real feelings and emotions, which was rare at the time. So, yes, Susanna has a buckwheat cake in her mouth, but also a tear in her eye.

If you're interested in further reading, here are some links I came across today:

Whither Zither Pete's analysis of the song (where he imagines the song being sung to a buckwheat pancake griddle-flipper): Part One, Part Two (with a great general analysis of the song)

Joanne O'Connell's 500-page dissertation for the University of Pittsburgh: Understanding Stephen Collins Foster: His World and Music (.pdf) I've only skimmed through this, but there's a lot of interesting stuff.

Well, Kathy, probably more than you were looking for, huh? You shouldn't get me started! :)

Josephine Cameron said...

Does anyone else have a different take/insight on the buckwheat cake imagery?

Kathy said...

Thanks for the links. I tried searching on the web myself but never found anything more than lyrics and general biography.

You know how they have books such as the annotated Alice in Wonderland and the annotated Mother Goose? Do you know if there is a similar reference work for songs?

Josephine Cameron said...

A good place to start is Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag. Alan Lomax also has a lot of great books like American Ballads and Folk Songs that go into detail about the origins of various traditional songs. A lot of it is really fascinating.

FleaStiff said...

Some meanings:
Banjo on my knee: to have an intent to be a performer in a minstrel show. We would now say 'stagestruck' but at the time the only opportunity would have been a minstrel show singer.

Buckwheat cake: No, not a pancake flipper short-order cook. For a black in the South it was a luxury item consumed at a wedding and would be symbolic of Susannah having married as he was wandering. Or perhaps his hopes that she would marry him upon his arrival though that would be doubtful.

This song is one of the most often censored ones ever... I'm sure everyone noticed the absence of the second verse which is often censored to protect current race relations issues.

Josephine Cameron said...

Thanks, Don, for the additional insight. I didn't know that a buckwheat cake would have been a wedding-related luxury...very interesting. And yes, that second verse is something I noted earlier, this is the main problem with Stephen Foster. It's so hard to sing many of his songs in a modern context without censoring them. And for good reason.

FleaStiff said...

Stephen Foster was actually an Abolisionist and the song Oh Sussanah is a song from a Black man to a Black woman (probably an idealized one). The song emphasizes the desire of the male to prosper and enjoy his musical performance ambitions and that "his sussanah" should not worry (this being not long after the time where marriage ceremonies performed by Black ministers would end with 'till time or distance do you part').

The song was immediately popular nationwide.

Josephine Cameron said...

Hi again, Don. I had to check on that one with a friend who did his graduate school dissertation on Stephen Foster a couple years ago. His research found Stephen Foster to be a Democrat (a pro-slavery party at the time), not an abolitionist. There *was*, however, a movement years after his death to reconstruct Foster as an abolitionist and a humanist to counter some other images of his persona that had been created. He's a *very* interesting character, not only because of his own persona and accomplishments (which were vast), but also because of the way that the public has tried to co-opt, change, and reconstruct that persona over the years.

And yes, Oh Susanna was (and still is) an impressively popular song. Thanks for your comments!

FleaStiff said...

Actually, support of a political party does not mean that one supports all aspects of their policies. There is some indication that Foster opposed the violence involved in Republican calls for abolition rather than abolition itself. Northern views on Blacks often embraced freedom but still considered them to be considerably "lesser". Even Foster's use of a variety of words popular at the time can be attributed to a simple use of the vernacular in songs and ditties.
It is certainly true that later historical commentary was certainly very "creative" of a persona rather than historically accurate.

The main thing to remember is that it was an amazingly popular song and remains so. Its popularity in California mining fields certainly shows that none of it was in any way limited to the American south.

Josephine Cameron said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Don. I read somewhere that the miners changed the chorus to things like "I'm going to California, my washpan on my knee." That's the thing I love the most about these traditional songs. People from all over the country and throughout time are able to connect with them in all kinds of different meaningful ways.

Anonymous said...

I learned that "Oh Susannah" is also a song the slaves used to sing on their way to freedom. I believe it had a special, hidden meaning to them.
The first time I remember hearing "Oh Susannah" was in music class in first grade. Only a couple people in my class had heard it before, but everyone loved it. We got to play different kinds of instruments to it, and dance around the room. It was a lot of fun!

Josephine Cameron said...

Thanks, anonymous! I hadn't heard that about the slaves singing Oh Susanna. I wonder if there's been any research into the "hidden meaning."

FleaStiff said...

Hidden meanings?
Many people don't even know the meanings of songs. We sing "Yankie Doodle" not knowing that it was a term of derision, an insult.

Waltzing Matilda was once sung on television with a group of dancers doing a waltz. It should ofcourse been sung on TV with a policeman arresting a hobo for vagrancy, since that is what the phrase 'waltzing matilda' means.

steve said...

I once read a book about a woman who moved out west and lived on the wide open plains. When one of her neighbors died she was responsible for dressing the body for burial. She placed a buckwheat cake in his mouth as part of the burial ritual (I suppose as a symbolic last meal). In the song "Oh, Susannah", I believe that the singer has a dream that, upon waking, makes him fear that his beloved Susannah may be dead. In his dream, she had a buckwheat cake in her mouth -- perhaps referring to the burial traditions of some people. Anyway, it's a great song performed especially well by "Be Good Tanyas". Check it out if you get a chance.


Josephine Cameron said...

That's fascinating, Kris. Thanks! & The Be Good Tanyas version *is* great, isn't it?

FleaStiff said...

Some follow up to my initial comments of quite some time ago.

What many do not realize is the song is an apostrophe. That is why its title is not Sussanha but O Sussanha. The literary and poetic use of "O" is to signify the sudden shift of addressing an absent and stylized rather than present character. It is similar to the use of O God or O Death or the like.

This indicates that the singer is not addressing some specific woman but an idealized image of a young woman that he hopes to marry or feels he is destined to marry or more likely was destined to marry.

Think of today's screenwriters: they would easily handle a story about a female torn between "a career" and her "biological clock" for child bearing. The song is about a man's similar struggle between his desire to earn fame and fortune in a minstrel show and his desire to select and settle down with a young woman. The man knows he could become a share cropper and select Susahanna but it would be a life of struggle and poverty. He also knows he has a talent and a drive for more, yet a limited amount of time and limited amount of luck. If he is successful he and his somewhat idealized wife will enjoy a life of relative ease and comfort, but not all young men who have a good voice and a good ability with a banjo make it to the Christy Minstrel Company.

The buckwheat cake symbolizes marriage and fidelity which is on his mind and that he knows his Sussanah may not wait for him to become a successful, fairly well-off suitor but may settle for a less talented man who is not trying to become a wandering minstrel to better himself for her benefit.

The same emotions ran true in the various gold fields and other endeavors in which men engaged to seek their fortune or die. And as with many men who are seeking their fortune, they die broke.