This week on Double Americana, we’re performing a song that most American kids know before they know anything. “Oh! Susanna” is one of the most widely performed and well known folk songs in the western cannon and for good reason. It was written by Stephen Foster in 1846 in Cincinnati, OH, when he worked as a bookkeeper in his brother’s steamship company. It was first performed on September 11th, 1847 at Andrew’s Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, PA by a local quintet, which just sounds like an awesome place to listen to music. The song later became the unofficial theme of the Forty-Niners during the California gold rush. As was commonplace, if you were in a minstrel group that performed this song, you would register the song for copyright and as a result, Oh! Susanna got copyrighted 21 times. Foster apparently made $100 from it, but it’s popularity led to a publishing company offering him a royalty rate of 2 cents per sheet of music sold. This allowed Stephen Foster to become America’s first fully professional songwriter. Just think what he would have made if Spotify was around back then!
Back before we were The Rough & Tumble, when we were performing on double decker busses in the middle of downtown Asheville circa 2009 and dreaming of someday getting paid $100 for something we wrote, we had a version of this song that we’d perform. It’s an odd thing to perform a song that you’ve known since childhood and connect with it in a way that you hadn’t for your whole life. Sometimes a song, even a really beautiful song, can become just background noise and it takes approaching it from another angle to appreciate it again. I think what strikes us about Oh! Susanna now and what makes it such a beloved song is the determination in the lyrics. Here’s this guy trying to find his own true love and he’s come all the way from Alabama to New Orleans and all he wants is to make sure that she doesn’t cry for him. The reward is in the journey- he’s come from Alabama with a banjo on his knee. What more can you want?