Jan 30 2013
Stephen Foster wrote “Oh Susannah” in 1947. My next radio show will be a Foster-Special.
Oh Susannah must be the song which founded popular music in the USA.
Some thoughts about the original lyrics:
I jumped aboard the telegraph
and travelled down the river
the electric fluid magnified
and killed five hundred nigga.
The bulgine bust and the hoss ran off,
I thought I’d die
I shut my eye to hold my breath
Susannah don’t you cry
First thing is that the lyrics weren’t written in the way you read them here. The second line for instance went:
“and trabbled down de ribber”. “breath” was “bref” and “lectrick” meant “electric”. Reason for this is that it was common in those days to perform popular songs in the so-called blackface style, which used the language of African-Americans in a not so respectful way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackface)
More interesting seems to me that some of the words have more meaning than you might expect at first sight: “telegraph” was a popular steamboat on the Ohio river: There was Telegraph No. 1 and No.2. In the next verse the boat is converted in what was expected in the first place: the real telegraph as a media of communication. The Mexican War 0f 1948 was the first conflict to be reported by telegraph in American newspapers. And were not finished yet: The fifth line mentions the bulgine, aka the steam engine of a locomotive. That’s the third transformation into what Walt Whitman called the “pulse of the continent”.
Which leaves us with the fourth verse, where (OOPS) five hundred African-American die. Both trains and steamboats caused many casualties in those days. In the year proceeding new legislations about steamboat security by the US Senate in 1852 people had to mourn 695 deaths.
in 1850 this trinity of train, steamboat and telegraph not only symbolizes the American Dream in thise days it also makes places irrelevant. Louisiana or Alabama - telegraph connects and train makes a change of places an easy thing today. Rural USA has gone industrial USA comes fast and mighty. And the change is not positive in Foster’s eyes: Slaves and owners have dangerous times to face and those 500 are the first victims.
Oh Susanna was one of Fster’s early song and he did’t make a penny out of it. It’s said that his publisher W.C.Peters made 10.000$ from it. For Foster this was the point where he came to thinking that music might earn him a living.
Read more about ‘Oh Susannah” and Stephen Foster in: Ken Emerson: Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the rise of American popular culture, Da Capo Press 1998
Please forgive my poor English. Any correction is appreciated