On “Oh! Susanna”


Arts & Culture


Regarding “Oh! Susanna,” there is little point in discussing the verses nobody knows. Let us confine ourselves to the verses everybody knows:

Well, I come from Alabama with
a banjo on my knee
I’m gwine to Louisiana ·
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! ·
oh, don’t you cry for me
I come from Alabama with
a banjo on my knee

The piece is not, as I assumed all my life, an anonymous folk song. It was written by Stephen Foster in 1847, published in 1848. He also wrote “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”—and pretty much every other song ever used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. 

About the transcript. I believe it would be a grave error to lay out the first two lines like this:

Well, I come from Alabama
with a banjo on my knee

The “with” should go up there on the first line. It physically hurts me to type it on the second. Just sing it and listen to yourself. The song-pause heave comes after—not before—the word “with.”

The immortality of the song, of course, is founded on the second stanza—the deep satisfaction of saying those wrong things: It was day and it was night, it rained and it was dry, it was hot and I froze. (It’s a shame the word “grateful” no longer reliably means “causing gratitude,” for I want to point out that such unsaying-what-you-just-said lines of verse are always grateful to the human mind. They mean nothing and they mean everything.)

The song has other perfections; we’ll get to ’em in a minute. First, we must acknowledge the botch, the damnable botch here:

Well, I come from Alabama with
a banjo on my knee
I’m gwine to Louisiana ·
my true love for to see

The badness of that line is twofold. One, the syntax is twisted up charmlessly. Two, even if you untwist it, it still contains a solid intolerable chunk of metrical padding. You don’t say, “I’m going to Louisiana for to see my true love.” No one would say that. It’s “I’m going to Louisiana to see my true love.”

That “for” has got to go. But everything else in those verses is quite perfect. Look at the first two lines again:

Well, I come from Alabama with
a banjo on my knee

Consider the interaction between “Alabama” and “banjo.” Those two words are richly satisfactory, any way you look at ’em. They’re right up there with “ricochet” and “Choctaw.” And brought into conjunction like that?—the mind goes Yessss. And even the tiny seesaw rhyme {come|from} has something to contribute …

Well, I come from Alabama with
a banjo on my knee

Another thing. Getting technical here, but have you ever noticed the run of vowel sounds in the chorus?

Oh! Susanna! ·
oh, don’t you cry for me

Try singing it without any of the consonants:

o! oo! æ-uh!
o-o oo ai aw eeee!

I know, I know. Just concentrate on what I’m trying to tell you. Those lines run you through all the “song” vowels, right in a row. The ones they used to call long. (I think the only MVP who’s not on the field there is the vowel we pronounce “ay.”)

But, see, here is a key difference between the task of the songwriter and the task of the poet. The songwriter simply cannot afford to ignore what in Latin is called “vowel quantity.” Or better say: if the songwriter ignores it, the song will suck, and no one will be able to quite say why. Brambly consonant clusters have to be shunned for the same reason. The song must be singable.

Consider what happens when you try to sing the following to the tune of “Oh! Susanna”:

​ ​♪ ♫
I like to see it lap the miles
and lick the valleys up
and stop to feed itself at tanks
and then prodigious step

around a pile of mountains
and, supercilious, peer
in shanties by the sides of roads,
and then a quarry pare …
♪ ♫

Dickinson did not have a banjo on her knee when she wrote that. She was being a poet. Weird diction, superhuman syntax, metaphorical la-la out the wazoo—these are hallmarks of the Shakespeare School of poetry. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a song has to be singable.

Look at a different poem, though. Dickinson could do “Song School” when she felt like it. Belt out the following to “Oh! Susanna”:

♪ ♫
Because I could not stop for death,
he kindly stopped for me!
The carriage held but just ourselves
and im-mor-ta-li-ty!
♪ ♫

The giveaway that she is in “song mode” is the word “me” in rhyme position. That’s classic. “Me” and “you” in rhyme position?—song stuff. And then there’s the seesaw semi-rhyme here:

The carriage held | but just ourselves
and immortality.

Is anyone surprised to discover that all Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to “Oh Susanna”? That’s not literally true, but pretty much. Actually, lots of things can be sung to “Oh! Susanna” …

♪ ♫
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now I’m found,
was blind but now I see!
♪ ♫

​ ​♪ ♫
There must have been | some magic in
that old top hat we found!
’Cuz when we placed it on his head
he began to dance around!
♪ ♫

​ ​♪ ♫
Half o’er, half o’er | to Aberdour
it’s fifty fadom deep!
and there lies guid Sir Patrick Spens
wi’ the Scots Lords at his feet!
♪ ♫

We could do this all day. Obviously the question isn’t whether it’s possible to sing something. It’s all about whether the stuff goes down easy or not. “Oh! Susanna” goes down very easy.

And it’s not even that Stephen Foster “simply had the magic touch.” Google the rest of the song’s lyrics and prepare to be curdled. Hello, N-word. Hello, awkward as fuck. Hello, can’t even hold a candle to the good part. It’s quite baffling.

Speaking of baffling, I have a question. Can someone please explain to me how it is that two songs can have almost the exact same music and we don’t notice it?

I don’t know how many people reading this have a banjo handy? But I’m gonna need you to snatch that up for a minute. Or your guitar. Three chords, people; let’s go:

Now compare that to:

Look, I’m not a musicologist. But two loads of A-E-A-E-A over and over, with a D thrown in for the chorus—that’s pretty much the same song, isn’t it? Yet I would never have noticed this in a million years, except for what I can see my left hand doing when I’m playing it. During my Maryland childhood, when these two songs were in very heavy rotation—but had no visual component—I had no clue they were related. Zero. I also had to have it pointed out to me that “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the alphabet song are the same thing. I was probably thirty. What does it mean that I had to be told this?

I’m sure I don’t know. But in closing, I should like to enter into the record a version of the song I’ve heard a number of times, down here in southeast Texas. I don’t know if this version is popular on account of the large number of prisons down here or what. Actually, I don’t even know that it’s popular. I couldn’t find it anywhere on Google, so I guess it’s not. Anyhow, this is what I’ve heard, and this is what I’ve been singing:

​ ​♪ ♫
Well, I stepped into the avenue
and said “Well, bless my soul!
I never knew my attitude
would help me make parole!”

The warden came and said my name,
a tear was in his eye!
Said “Look here, Son, the time has come
to kiss this place goodbye.”

Oh! Susanna, &c.
♪ ♫



Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.