The long winter evenings of fire-light and music had come again. Pa’s fidle wailed while Pa was singing: ‘Oh, Susi-an-na, don’t you cry for me’…. — Little House in the Big Woods, Chapter 13, “The Deer in the Wood”
She sat down beside Pa at the fire, and Pa took his fiddle out of its box and began to play. ‘Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me,’ the fiddle wailed, and Pa began to sing… — Little House on the Prairie, Chapter 26, “Going Out”
He played ‘Dixie Land,’ and ‘We’ll Rally Round the Flag, Boys!’ He played ‘All the Blue Bonnets Are Over the Border,’ and ‘Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me!” — On the Banks of Plum Creek, Chapter 26, “Grasshopper Eggs”
Oh! Susanna was one of the earliest songs written by Stephen Foster (perhaps prior to 1845); it was performed in public for the first time in 1847 and was first copyrighted in 1848 by C. Holt, Jr. in New York. Before being recognized as a song-writer, Foster gave copies of his songs to both publishers and minstrel singers, and copyright laws at the time allowed whoever was in possession of the music to copyright it in their name. While publishers made thousands of dollars selling 25-cent copies of “Oh! Susanna,” publisher William C. Peters did pay Stephen Foster $100 for it. At the time, this amount “delighted” Foster, for it started him on his career path as a paid song-writer.
From the first, “Oh! Susanna” was a hit; it was sung by almost every minstrel group and became the “anthem” of the gold-seeking forty-niners on their way to California. There were many variations in both music and lyrics, as shown by those sung by Charles Ingalls in three separate Little House books.
Stephen Foster Collins (1826-1864) was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, east of Pittsburgh. A musically gifted child, Stephen was educated in the private schools of Pennsylvania and worked as a bookkeeper for a steamship company in Cincinnati as a young adult. It was during this period that Foster made arrangements with several publishers to be paid royalties on future songs, usually 2 cents per copy.
Foster married in 1850 and the couple had one child, a daughter. His honeymoon trip was to New Orleans, the only trip Foster made to the deep south he wrote so much about. In today’s music business, Foster would have earned millions from performances and sale of his music, but in the 1850s and 60s, it was a hard way to earn a living. Following an accident in New York in January 1864, Stephen Foster died with only thirty-eight cents in his pocket. His music lives on, in over two hundred songs and instrumentals from a twenty-year period.
Stephen Foster songs mentioned in the Little House books include: “Oh! Susanna,” “Uncle Ned,” “Nelly Was a Lady,” “Oh Boys, Carry Me Along,” “De Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night.”
1. I come from Alabama with my Banjo on my knee
I’se gwine to Lou’siana my true lub for to see.
It rain’d all night de day I left, de wedder it was dry;
The sun so hot I froze to def; Susanna, don’t you cry.
[chorus] Oh! Susanna, do not cry for me;
I come from Alabama, wid my banjo on my knee.
2. I jump’d aboard the telegraph and trabbled down de ribber,
De lectrick fluid magnified, and kill’d five hundred Nigga.
De bulgine bust and de hoss ran off, I really thought I’d die;
I shut my eyes to hold my bref; Susanna, don’t you cry.
3. I had a dream de udder night, when ebry ting was still;
I thought I saw Susanna dear, coming down de hill,
De buckwheat cake was in her mouf, de tear was in her eye,
I says I’se coming from de soug; Susanna, don’t you cry
4. [This verse omitted in the original.]
Oh! when I gets to New Orleans I’ll look all round and round,
And when I find Susanna I’ll fall right on the ground.
But if I do not find her dis darkey’l surely die,
And when I’m dead and buried; Susanna, don’t you cry.
(from Little House in the Big Woods)
Oh, Susi-an-na, don’t you cry for me,
I’m going to Cal-i-for-ni-a,
The gold dust for to see.
(from Little House on the PrairieWith my wash-pan on my knee,
And every time I thought of home,
I wished it wasn’t me.
(from On the Banks of Plum Creek)
Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me!
I’m going to California
With my washpan on my knee!
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Click on the above images to view a copy of original sheet music of “Oh! Susanna”. This music was copyrighted in 1848 by F. D. Benteen in Maryland.
This music is archived in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708-0185 USA.. The Historic American Sheet Music Program provides access to music published in the United States between 1850 and 1920.
“Oh! Susanna” (BW 13; LHP 26; BPC 26)
“I went to California with my wash-pan on my knee”
Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me!
Oh, Susi-an-na don’t you cry for me