Oh! Susanna by Stephen Foster - Likely Origins
By Glenn Weiser

Stephen Foster's famous song "Oh! Susanna, published in 1848, got so wildly popular throughout our young nation that it became the unofficial theme of the 1849 California Gold Rush. It turns out, though, that Foster may have borrowed more than a little from an earlier work. Here's what I've learned...

"Oh! Susanna," had its premiere in a Pittsburgh ice cream parlor in 1847. It's composer was 21 year-old Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864), who in spite of alcoholism, hard luck, and an early grave, was destined to become America's first great writer of popular songs. In the following year, his new song, the first of his many famous works, was published by Firth and Pond of New York City. Like his other compositions, "Oh! Susanna" was picked up and popularized by the traveling entertainers The Christie Minstrels. The lyrics, of course, tell of a man journeying from Alabama to New Orleans with his banjo in search of his sweetheart Susanna. It appears, though, that Foster's debut hit was more derivative than you might suppose.
    In 1846, the publisher George F. Reed of Boston brought out a song in the then popular Southern nostalgia vein entitled "The Rose of Alabama." The lyrics were by Silas S. Steele, and the tune was attributed to A. F. Winnemore and his Band of Serenaders. In Steele's song, the lyrics tell of a man bound from Mississippi to Alabama, again with a banjo, in search of his love. Moreover, the melodies of the two songs are strikingly similar in the opening bars of their refrains-they both go from the root to the third of the subdominant chord. Both are also published in the key of G. I have provided the lyrics and melodies below so you can compare them.
    Even if Foster did borrow from Steele for his first songwriting success, it detracts little from his genius-Stephen Foster remains one of America's towering musical figures.
(Note - Long after I wrote the above, I read in Ken Emerson's biography of Stephen Foster, Do-Dah, Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Music, where the author notes the similarity between the melodies of Billy Whitlock's 1846 song "Mary Blane" and "Oh! Susanna." Emerson is correct: the tune of the verse of "Mary Blane" does resemble that of "Oh! Susanna." But it still appears to me that the story line and the melody of the chorus are derived form "Oh! Susanna.")
Oh! Susanna (1848)
Stephen Foster
Sheet music (PDF)

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, don't you cry for me;
I come from Alabama,
with my banjo on my knee.

I had a dream the other night,
When everything was still;
I thought I saw Susanna dear,
A-coming down the hill.
The buckwheat cake was in her mouth,
The tear was in her eye,
Said I, I'm coming from the south,
Susanna don't you cry.

Oh! Susanna, don't you cry for me;
I come from Alabama,
with my banjo on my knee.

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

Oh! Susanna, don't you cry for me;
I come from Alabama,
with my banjo on my knee.

(There is a fourth verse, but it is usually omitted due to its racist and violent nature. Note also that Foster's name does not appear on the sheet music-he was mercilessly cheated of royalties by publishers throughout his life.)


Rose of Alabama (1846)
Silas Steele

Sheet music (PDF)
Away from Mississippi's vale,
With my ol' hat there for a sail,
I crossed upon a cotton bale,
To Rose of Alabamy.
    Oh brown Rosie,
     Rose of Alabamy.
     A sweet tobacco posey
     Is my Rose of Alabamy.
     A sweet tobacco posey
     Is my Rose of Alabamy.
I landed on the far sand bank,
I sat upon the hollow plank,
And there I made the banjo twank,
For Rose of Alabamy.
Oh, arter d'rectly bye and bye,
The moon rose white as Rosie's eye,
Den like a young coon out so sly,
Stole Rose of Alabamy.
I said sit down just where you please.
Upon my lap she took her ease.
"It's good to go upon the knees,"
Said Rose of Alabamy.
The river rose; the cricket sang,
The lightnin' bug did flash his wing,
Den like a rope my arms I fling,
'Round Rose of Alabamy.
We hugged how long I cannot tell.
My Rosie seemed to like it well.
My banjo in the river fell.
Oh Rose of Alabamy.
Like alligator after prey,
I jump in but it float away,
And all the while it seem to say,
"Oh Rose of Alabamy."
Now every night come rain or shower,
I hunt that banjo for an hour;
And see my sweet tobacco flower,
Oh Rose of Alabamy.
Oh fare thee well you belles of Spain,
And fare thee well to Liza Jane,
Your charms will all be put to shame,
By Rose of Alabamy

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