The Original Lyrics to ‘Oh Susanna’ Are Brutally Racist

Like many people, I first learned ‘Oh Susanna’ when I was a kid.  Little did I know that the lyrics have been completely changed since 1848.

Last week, a major controversy erupted over a statue commemorating American composer Stephen Foster.  He’s the songwriter of classic American songs like ‘Oh Susanna’ and ‘Camptown Races’ (more on the lyrics to ‘Oh Susanna’ in a moment).

The statue itself sits in a Pittsburgh park.  And it depicts Foster sitting nobly while a black slave plays guitar at his feet.  Which makes sense, given that Foster was a preeminent author of ‘black minstrel’ or ‘blackface’ theater tunes.  Blackface was a massively successful form of musical theater in the 1800s, and typically portrayed enslaved black people as buffoonish and dumb.

+ There’s Actually a Statue In Pittsburgh of a Happy Black Slave Playing Banjo at the Feet of a Distinguished White Composer

Little wonder people want to tear the statue down.  But Foster apologists pointed to a composer trying to change perceptions of black Americans, and merely trying to eek out a penny in a racist world.  They even point to pieces that are sympathetic to slaves, while pointing to Foster’s pro-Union efforts during the Civil War.

Maybe.  But it’s interesting to look at the lyrics that Foster actually wrote for his biggest hit: ‘Oh Susanna’.   It turns out that the lyrics to this song have been heavily modified over the years, largely to erase its racist past..

There are the first lyrics published upon release of the song in 1848.  The original version is currently stored in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

__________________________________________

Verse 1

I come from Alabama with my Banjo on my knee—
I’m goin’ 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.

Chorus

Oh! Susanna, do not cry for me;
I come from Alabama, with my Banjo on my knee.

Verse 2 

I jumped aboard the telegraph and traveled down the river,
Electric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred Ni—er.
The bullgine bust, the horse ran off, I really thought I’d die;
I shut my eyes to hold my breath — Susanna, don’t you cry.

Chorus

Verse 3:

I had a dream the other night, when everything was still;
I thought I saw Susanna dear, a comin’ down the hill.
The buckwheat cake was in her mouth, a tear was in her eye,
I says, “I’ve coming from the South”-Susanna, don’t you cry.

Chorus

__________________________________________

These original lyrics were actually recorded in the early 1900s.  But there’s little evidence that they survived much longer, thanks to multiple revisions.

Pittsburgh is still debating the fate of its Foster statue.

49 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    A song from 170 years ago with racist lyrics? I am shocked!

    Seriously who is singing this song and how old is Paul??? lol

    • Susanna

      My name is Susanna and I’m white, so EVERYONE still sings it every time I introduce myself…

      • Anonymous

        Here are the original lyrics and it has nothing to do with racism.
        It’s about a young man losing the girl he loves who is marring another man.
        The young man can’t afford to marry because he is a traveling minstrel.

        I come from Alabama
        With a banjo on my knee ( “Banjo on my knee” he is a minstrel)
        I’m going to Louisiana
        My true love for to see
        It rained all night the day I left (the conflicting lyrics show how his life is upside down)
        The weather it was dry
        The sun so hot I froze myself
        Susanna, don’t you cry

        Oh! Susanna
        Oh! don’t you cry for me
        For 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
        Coming down the hill
        The buckwheat cake was in her mouth (Buckwheat cake traditional southern wedding cake in the 1800’s. )
        The tear was in her eye (she is wedding to a man she does not truly love for the security of marriage)
        I said I’m coming from the South
        Susanna don’t you cry

        Oh! Susanna
        Oh! don’t you cry for me
        For I come from Alabama
        With my banjo on my knee

        Oh I soon will be in New Orleans and then I’ll look around
        And when I find my Susanna, I’ll fall upon the ground
        But if I do not find her, this man will surely die
        And when I’m dead and buried, Susanna don’t you cry (These lyrics are self explanatory if you view them as a love shattered)

        Oh! Susanna
        Oh! don’t you cry for me
        For I come from Alabama
        With my banjo on my knee
        (x2)

          • Kaya

            This is real guys! My Orchestra Conductor wouldn’t let me and my orchestra play the fiddle tune to this for a concertbecause of what is going on!!

        • fyi

          Sounds like the revised version. Did you read the article? Fyi marrying.

        • Dennis Jackson

          I’m from Louisiana, the south, always love that song.

        • Anonymous

          You people are sick, and I hope you don’t still think this way.

      • Mat

        We must not try to cover up history. I dont think the n word was any worse that calling a jew a jew or a white a limmy . lets not forget this was the 1850s. I love the banjo in this song.

      • Minority Report

        If that is true, then there’s a whole lot of rap that is “brutal racist”, and that IS true!

      • Viktor Zavadsky

        calm down little pink thing – have yourself a nice relaxing hot gasoline enema and go lay down on the railroad tracks

    • deepfreeze

      Shittiest thing you ever read….you don’t read much do you?….let me know if you’d like some real shit to read.

  2. Roland of Aragon

    Ha-ha that’s funny! I have a lot of black friends who would laugh at this. This is totally out of context. The “N” word back then was normal, it’s like saying “black” these days. Oops the “B” word is racist too, I meant African.

    I stand corrected.

    • Anonymous

      Roland of Aragon- “I have a lot of black friends.” Lolol!! ?

  3. Kendall123isme

    I think the fact it is a song that is taught to little kids is the worst part of it fr

  4. SCF

    The song is not brutally racist, it’s about a man trying to find his true love. Albeit, brutally tragic because they were probably separated by slave trade.

    By the way if you’re going to put original lyrics at least copy them correctly and include the last verse. The last verse says that if he does not find Susanna he will die.

  5. Anonymous

    Check the lyrics of all ur rap songs. The “N” word is in most of them. Why aren’t these songs considered racist?

    • Ash

      ’cause they weren’t written by a white guy to be sung by white guys in black face at a time when an actual black musician would never be allowed to perform.

      • Mr. Bojangles

        Blacks did perform in many areas throughout the south not so much in the north but in some cases did as well. New Orleans was a mecca for the black musician. You should learn a little bit about history before commenting.

      • Anonymous

        Blacks did sometimes perform, usually strumming a banjo. But, they did it wearing black face paint! Surrendering their identity IMHO.

  6. Boo_pah

    Writer considers this racist and instead of discussing what was entertainment by negroes back then, he perpetuates the racism. It’s apparent what you racist negroes are up to. I don’t care what word you need me to use to feel less than or more than. It’s all really a matter of Ego anyway.

    You simply make it an issue and want to project your values on others.

  7. Mitsuyoshi

    I am Japanese and having a discussion with other Japanese about the meaning of the lyric of this song.
    I would appreciate it if you are a native speaker of English and kind enough to give us your opinion.

    Which do you think Stephen Collins Foster meant by the lyric, “Don’t you cry for me”?
    Does he mean “Never cry for me!”?
    Or, does he mean “Please cry for me”?

    • Dennis

      The word “don’t” means Do Not. So do not cry for me or Never cry for me.

    • toubabdoc

      Do not does not mean never. The word never implies time in the future. The singer is saying do not cry for me now.
      I hope this helps.

    • Anonymous

      He’s saying “even though I’ll die without my true love, don’t worry about me…It will be all right.”

    • Anonymous

      Don’t feel sorry for me, I’m ok, I’m on my way to see you😊

    • Mark

      It sounds like he wants her to “cry for” him thinking she might forget or give up on him. He means to console her (and encourages her sympathy) , while presuming she is crying “pining” for him. He keeps exaggerating his hardships and peril while traveling to reunite with her. His hopes that she is crying for him overshadow his words to the contrary.

  8. Pittsburgh Strong

    This article should be updated. Despite the implication that there was much hand-wringing, the very month this article was posted the local commission decided unanimously that the statue should be removed. It was taken down in April 2018 and placed in a private location with historical contextualization.

  9. Lop

    If you expect that in the mid 1800 people use 2020 political correct terms, no one would go through. Even really good people. This reminds me Orwell’s 1984, everything that goes against the ideology is erased from the culture.

  10. Four MORE Years!!!

    It must be a living nightmare, knowing that “PRESIDENT” TRUMP will be staying right where he is for another 4 years – it takes time to repair all the damage that the last person in the White House did (“mister” – NOT “President” obama – – – he never qualified for THAT title…) while desperately trying to DESTROY this wonderful country,..

    Thank whatever “powers that be”, that we have someone who really CAN and IS MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!!!

    It’s a real shame that the first black person in the White House (and his wife) had so much hatred for our country

    • Anonymous

      Yes sir my president will remain in office because the liars and cheaters couldn’t overcome the will of the people.

    • jr

      let me guess white no education from rural area of the country and does not know wtf he is talking about

  11. Minority Report- "In the black" means Profit

    Why do you denigrate your self so?
    It doesn’t always mean ignorant,
    or else a whole lot of colored folks
    got a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to do!

  12. Myra

    The Word actually means Low down dirty person… I have met many Low Down Dirty People… ALL COLOR AND SHADES>>. I’m mixed… I belong to the HUMAN RACE. The Words of the song were written in a terrible time. It Offends me because it is a word of Hate, pain, and trouble. Some people do feel hurt when it is sung, or they hear it, for that reason changing it was the very BEST, It does not bother me personally, I know I’m, not a Low Down Dirty Person and neither is my Father. Ignorant People Took a Word and used it to try to cause hurt and Pain.

  13. Centrist

    This author is a fag and uses click bait to argue a very weak point. I mean that in the most “brutal” way.

  14. brian

    can someone explain ‘jumped aboard the telegraph’ (a boat?) and ‘electric fluid magnified’ ?

    • Anonymous

      Sure, I could…nonsensical lyrics not unlike the ones written by socialist Bobby Dylan, and the idiots clamored aboard THAT train.

  15. Anonymous

    Your insensitivity is hilarious but you had to know it would spark controversy.

  16. Stunning and Brave

    Far-left outlets can’t be allowed to exist.