From Cincinnati to Grizzly Flats

havigurstF01Today marks an auspicious day in music history: the first recorded performance of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susannah,” the earliest hit song in U.S. history. Foster’s smash debuted in a Pittsburgh saloon. Soon, Jebediah Americus Kasem, great-great-grandfather of Casey, played it on his Top Forty Hoedown, carried live via the telegraph machine; and in a flash, the sheet music to “Oh! Susannah” found its way into every American piano bench.

In his UIP classic Ohio: A History, Walter Havighurst gives us the background on a song that was the “You Light Up My Life” of the nineteenth century:

On the Cincinnati riverfront in the spring of 1848 a new bookkeeper began work in a shipping office. His name was Stephen Collins Foster. Outside his window, carts rumbled on the pavement, passengers thronged the wharf boat, and a parade of big white streamers lined the levee. In the chill wind, tatters of smoke blew from the tall chimneys. But the river led to the languid, fragrant Southland.

Stephen Foster had melodies in his mind. Forgetting bills of lading, he began to write:

I come from Alabama
Wid my banjo on my knee
I’m gwan to Louisiana
My true love for to see
Oh! Susannah, do not cry for me
I come from Alabama
Wid a banjo on my knee

From the river a whistle sounded, and he saw the handsome new stern-wheeler Telegraph backing off from the landing. The young clerk dipped his quill again:

I jumped aboard de Telegraph
And trabbled down de ribber

The song crossed the plains and mountains. It rounded Cape Horn in square-riggers and climbed the mountains of Panama on muleback. It livened the streets of San Francisco, the road to Hangtown, and the trail to Grizzly Flats.

After six years the Telegraph was beached and broken, but it went on voyaging in Stephen Foster’s song. In 1853 in Delhi, India, and American traveler heard British officers sing of jumping on the Telegraph and heading down the river.