A Few Things You Didn't Know About "Oh! Susanna"
On this day in 1847, legendary American songwriter Stephen Foster debuted the song "Oh! Susanna" to a crowd at the Andrews' Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "Who gives a tin Enchirito about something we sang in grade school?" you're shouting because you're a weird shouty person with a poor grasp of proper expletives. Well, you might be surprised to learn few things about the song.
For instance, you could argue that it was the first break out pop hit ever by an American songwriter. Initially, Foster only made about the equivalent of $2,000 today for composing the tune, mostly because 21 other musicians heard the song and copyrighted it under their own names because back in the 19th century it was actually considered weird to not be a flaming douchenozzle.
Eventually, though, Foster hooked up with the publishing firm Firth, Pond & Company and began earning two cents per copy sold. What is awesome about this is that the popularity of the song and the sweetness of the deal enabled Foster to become America's first fully professional songwriter.
Something else you probably didn't know as it never comes up in those folksy history specials that they made us watch in fourth grade, the song is racist as fuck. It's a minstrel tune, designed to be performed in blackface and sung in a stereotypically slave voice.
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Nineteenth century, remember? Being a prick was as popular as hard drugs for common ailments. In fact, the line "I jumped aboard de telegraph and trabbelled down de riber/ De Lectric fluid magnified and killed five hundred Nigger" is usually omitted.
Still, you can't deny how catchy a tune it is, and it remains popular today even with A-level musicians. Just this year alone, Neil Young covered it on Americana...
Granted, it's always been most popular with the folk and country crowd. Johnny Cash, James Taylor, and the Byrds have all taken a shot at it at one time or another, and of course it's one of the first songs that most of us learn on the guitar because it's both memorable and simple enough that messing it up actually requires more effort than getting it right. That's not to say you can't have some fun with it. Check this out.
That's Gamma Ray, started by Kai Hansen after he left Helloween, and it shows off why Gamma Ray is rightfully considered a group of metal musical geniuses. In case you didn't have the patience to make it two minutes into the song to hear the blistering solo... it's "Oh! Susanna." Really. Hansen and Henjo Richter just suddenly go all Stephen Foster on the listener after having spent all their time wailing about a dystopic eternity, and the weird thing is that it totally works.
As is the case with any song, especially after it passes into the public domain, musicians feel perfectly free to change it up any way they like. For instance, here's the Rednex's version, which is basically interchangeable with their take on "Cotton Eye Joe." Say what you want about the Rednex, it's cheesy trash, but it's fun cheesy trash.
Then there are bands that change a song around so much that you may not even realize that it was even based on a previous song at all. "Venus" is a song that has been a No. 1 hit for both Bananarama and original artist Shocking Blue.
It's a great pop tune, but the instrumental music is nothing more than a slight tweak of Tim Rose's arrangement of "Oh! Susanna" that the Big Three released as "The Banjo Song" in 1963. Six years later, Shocking Blue added new lyrics and people like Jennifer Lopez are still singing it... albeit to sell razors.
Maybe that's what's so amazing about the tune. Despite being more than 150 years old and born from one of the most racist art forms ever and essentially being completely nonsensical to boot the song just hits a chord with damn near everybody. Even the Bulgarian Women's Choir.
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