The Blackface TraditionComposed by Stephen Foster in 1847, "Oh! Susanna" (purchase/download) was written in the minstrel/blackface tradition. The blackface groups wore a form of theatrical make-up that made them look like caricatures of African slaves. Their performances mocked African-Americans, with the singers singing in a mock accent intended to sound uneducated and depricating.
The blackface performances were hugely popular during their time. Foster was hardly the first songwriter to work in the minstrels tradition, as the Virginia Minstrels had started the craze in 1843.
The Original LyricsNowadays, of course, blackface is seen as an incredibly racist form of entertainment. So, it's somewhat ironic that "Oh! Susanna" is such a common American folk song, so often not recognized for its racist beginnings.
Originally, the song was performed with the blackface mock accent, and a verse that talks about killing black slaves, using rather violent distasteful imagery. Typically, this verse is no longer sung, due to its use of racial slurs and violence.
"Oh! Susanna": The NarrativeThe song tells a story about a man going to New Orleans to see his beloved Susanna. It's full of longing and desire, wherein the narrator dreams of Susanna at night and talks about "fall[ing] upon the ground" at first site of his love.
By eliminating the violent racist verse, and singing it without the mock accent, it's a fairly tame love song that has worked its way into the hearts and history of American folk music.
Lyrics for "Oh! Susanna", minus the racist verse.