Thursday, September 11, 1997

On This Day in Music (1847): “Oh! Susanna” first performed

Oh! Susanna

Stephen Foster (words & music)

Writer(s): Stephen Foster (see lyrics here)

First Performed: September 11, 1847

Published: 1848

First Charted: July 19, 1924 (Wendell Hall & the Shannon Four)

Peak: 8 PM (Hall) (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): --

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 19.48 video, -- streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Stephen Foster is often referred to as “the Father of American Music.” BA The Pennsylvania-born songwriter wrote over 200 songs during his short 37 years. BA He was 18 when he published his first song, “Open They Lattice, Love” MF and 21 when he composed “Oh! Susanna,” which has been called “the first huge hit song in American popular music” BA and “one of the most famous American songs ever written.” WW

Foster wrote the song in Cincinnati, Ohio, after moving there to work as a bookkeeper for his brother’s steamship company. WW The song was first performed by a local quintet at a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon on September 11, 1847. WW It was first published in Cincinnati in 1848 by W.C. Peters & Co., WW a local music store. SA

However, a New York publisher pirated the song and published it under the name E.P. Christy. It gained popularity through performances by the Christy Minstrels in Manhattan, becoming the first minstrel song to infiltrate the middle-class market. SA Within three years, more than 20 editions of the sheet music – mostly illegal – had spread throughout the United States, making it difficult to say just how successful the song was. MF However, the original publisher still made $10,000 MF and Foster said the $100 he received for the song “had the effect of starting me on my present vocation as a songwriter.” BA Firth, Pond & Company then hired him at a royalty rate of two cents per copy of sheet music sold, making him America’s first professional songwriter. WW

The song “became emblematic of Westward expansion,” BA having been embraced by ‘49s during the California gold rush and others who headed west during the mid-19th century. BA The name “Susannah” may come from Foster’s sister Charlotte, who died, but had the middle name “Susannah.” WW The chorus of the song bears similarities to “Rose of Alabama” and both songs tell stories about lovers traveling from one state in the South to another, looking for his sweetheart and carting a banjo around along the way. WW

Foster’s works were inspired by and often mistaken for Negro spirituals “with their smoother and more accessible melodies than the intricate, opera-inspired tunes of the time.” MF He only visited the South once, but many of his songs portrayed black people and slave life. They were often performed by minstrel singers in blackface. BA

“Oh! Susanna” was written in the dialect of blacks who worked on plantations. While common at the time, today’s standards deem such lyrics “extremely racially offensive.” BA Foster even became aware of this when white, middle-class Americans grew more sympathetic to those suffering in slavery as the country moved towards Civil War. Foster later worked to replace the dialect in his earlier songs with verses in standard English. BA

The song has only charted once. Wendell Hall & the Shannon Four reached #8 with their cover in 1924. It has been covered by The Byrds, Bing Crosby, Vernon Dalhart, Connie Francis, Jewel, Al Jolson, Taj Mahal, Mitch Miller, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Pete Seeger, Nat Shilkret, Dinah Shore, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Fats Waller, and Neil Young.


First posted 8/30/2023.

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