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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

"Oh! Susannah": The Story Behind The Song | Americana | Neil Young w/ Crazy Horse

"Oh Susannah" - Neil Young w/ Crazy Horse 
Frame via Official Music Video 

"Oh Susannah" is the first video from Neil Young & Crazy Horse's album "Americana", released June 5th, 2011. 


Below is the video for The Big 3's "The Banjo Song (Oh Suzanna!)" from 1963.



One of the bigger surprises from Bridge 2011 weekend was the pairing of Dave Matthews & Neil Young on "Oh! Susanna". For many, this was a concert highlight. For others, somewhat oddly, it was a concert "lowlight" (Mercury News critic Jim Harrington). The song "Oh Susanna" has a fascinating backstory. From a comment by SONY:

"Oh! Susanna" is a minstrel song by Stephen Foster (1826-1864). It was published by W. C. Peters & Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1848.[1] The song was introduced by a local quintette at a concert in Andrews' Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 11, 1847. (wikipedia)

And now here's where it gets a bit bizarre. There have been a few comments about how Shocking Blue's cult 1970 hit "Venus" seems to have a similar beat and groove as "Oh Susanna". You be the judge. 



Oh those groovy '70's. sigh. They just don't make'm like they used to... Thanks SONY, Jill, Stringman, & Powderfinger!


On September 11th, 1847,  Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susannah" was performed in public for the first time; it was sung by a local quintet at the Eagle Ice Cream saloon in Pittsburgh, PA And 108 years later in 1955 the Singing Dogs entered Billboard's Top 100 chart on Dec. 10th with their covered version, eventually it peaked at #22 & spent 7 weeks on the Top 100. It has also been covered in albums by James Taylor, Byrds, & Neil Young with Crazy Horse. Mr. Foster died at 37.

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At 11/01/2011 09:10:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

Good sleuthing on the Big 3. That's the ticket, sounds a bit like Bob at the start too. The song has such history, Didn't we all learn that song in grade school? And looking at the utube vids from so many others on the links it's got everybody rockin'. Even one with pumpkins, goats and kids.

I don't begin to know where the idea came from to perform it last weekend, but it certainly has broadened my appreciation for the song and for Neil's ability to spotlight on something that can be overlooked and to really leave a mark on it in his own unique fingerprint. And Dave Matthews certainly gave it everything he had as well. Neil's the postman... always delivering.

At 11/02/2011 10:24:00 AM, Blogger Sharry said...

I came across a quote attributed to Neil in "Shakin' All Over" by John Einarson (see p. 92). It's interesting because Neil discusses the period in April 1965 when the Squires used to play classic folk songs with a rock 'n' roll beat and changed the melody.

"[...] We got into a thing where we did classic folk songs with a rock 'n' roll beat and changed the melody. We did a really weird version of "Tom Dooley" which was like rock 'n' roll but it was in minor keys. And the we did "Oh Susannah" [Ed: Or is it "Oh! Susanna"?] based on an arrangement by a group called the Thorns. Tim Rose was in the Thorns. We saw them at the Fourth Dimension. And we also did "Clementine" and "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes." I wrote all new melodies. We changed them totally with rock 'n' roll arrangements. It was pretty interesting. It was different."

There you have it from Neil.

Prior to 1962 Tim Rose's most recent band was the Thorns. However, he formed the Big 3 at some point in 1962 with (Mama) Cass Elliot and Jim Hendricks. They're the group who had the hit with "The Banjo Song (Oh! Susanna)" in 1963.

Neil said he saw Tim Rose perform "Oh! Susanna" with the Thorns at the 4D in Fort William and that it was Tim Rose's arrangement of the song that the Squires played in April 1965 at the 4D.

Did Neil really mean the Big 3 instead of Tim Rose and the Thorns?

At 11/02/2011 10:56:00 AM, Blogger Cornell said...

Funny! On Twitter I contacted a guy who was at the Bridge School Gala and tweeted a blurry pic. I asked him, as he had been present, if he knew which songs Neil had played (solo or with Dave M.) and the guy actually replied: "@cornello68 played my darling clementine- pretty wild".

I know that Sugarmtn has a very reliable setlist for the gala. So was the guy I contacted mistaken by "Oh! Susanna" or did Neil actually also play "Clementine" at the Gala??
Just wondering...

At 11/02/2011 11:04:00 AM, Anonymous Mother Nature on the Run said...


It's an easy song to play because you only need two fingers on one hand and some strum action going on the other!

Great song to jam at campfire and for a guitar "virtuoso" like Dave Matthews.

At 11/02/2011 12:06:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@SONY - "Neil's the postman... always delivering."

Good one. ;) Mind if we use sometime on TW?!

@Sharry - now that's good sleuthing! Thanks for research. So what might have triggered this cover from so long ago?

@Cornell - Dave & Neil played "Oh! Susanna" @ BSB gala week prior, not Clementine.

At 11/02/2011 12:22:00 PM, Blogger Cornell said...

@ Thrasher
Yes, I know that's what Tom has on Sugarmnt and I'm pretty sure that that setlist is correct.
Therefore my question if the guy that was there and that I contacted on Twitter perhaps was mistaken and meant that they played Oh! Susanna.
Or did Neil and Dave maybe only sang a mere few lines of Clementine???

I just happened to find it coincidental that that guy mentioned Clementine to me, while Sharry came across the section in Einarson's book where both Oh! Susanna and Clementine are mentioned and Neil now happened to play Susanna at the gala, while the guy mentioned Clementine was played at the gala.
Do I still make sense?? lol :-)

At 11/02/2011 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Sharry said...

I watched the video clip of "Oh! Susanna" being performed at the BSB and I didn't hear any lyrics from "Clementine" being sung. Perhaps Neil had originally thought to play that one but then changed his mind at the last minute.
Re: Thrasher's query about what might have inspired Neil to play this old chestnut... Perhaps he's reflecting more about his early days because of the memoir he's currently writing.

At 11/02/2011 03:45:00 PM, Anonymous Mother Nature on the Run said...

Brain was flashing "Oh Susanna" but the signal was spelling out Clementine." It happens.

At 11/02/2011 03:50:00 PM, Blogger Sharry said...

It was mentioned on Rust in a recent post that the gala and BSB concert are separate events. So maybe Neil did play "Clementine" at the gala and "Oh! Susanna" at the concert (both days).
Re: "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain." This song goes even further back with Neil. He used to play this on his Arthur Godfrey plastic ukulele. It was one of the songs that came along with the songbook that came with the uke.

At 11/02/2011 03:57:00 PM, Blogger Cornell said...

@ Sharry
I am not talking about BSB, as that was clearly Oh! Susanna. I was there.
I am talking about the Bridge School Gala the week before on October 14. Dave Matthews was the sole musical guest there.
A guy on twitter was at this gala and he told me (mistakenly or not) that Clementine was played there.
Which I found very coincidental with your discovery of both Susanna and Clementine being mentioned in Einarson's book. Especially since Susanna WAS played also at that Gala.
The question remains though: Was that guy at the Gala right about Clementine being played there as well (partly or totally or not at all??)?
I am pretty sure though that the setlist for the Gala on Oct. 14 on Sugarmtn is correct and the guy (most probably) is mistaken.

At 11/02/2011 06:24:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

You can use anything I post here or send to you. I'm happy to add anything to the multiplication of Neil in the world through yours and others efforts here. This is the treasure trove of information, insight, intrigue and all out incredible when it comes to the Neil Young education. Sharry, thanks for the goods on the background of this song performance and it's origin thru the horses mouth. I may have read something like that before, if so, it didn't register when I was jamming all over Susanna since I heard it. Keep spreading the wheat.

At 11/02/2011 09:40:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@Cornell - we think you can safely assume you're correct & your friend is mistaken.

@SONY - thanks bro.

At 11/02/2011 11:16:00 PM, Blogger Sharry said...

It's an interesting theory about the guy at the Gala mistaking "Clementine" for "Oh! Susanna." (Although I personally feel it would be hard to confuse the two since they're both so distinct on their own.)
Nevertheless, we still have the mystery of Neil referencing Tim Rose and the Thorns for the arrangement of "Oh! Susanna" that he used. Neil remarked that he saw Tim play at the 4D. Upon re-reading the passage in "Shakin' All Over" I now feel Neil was referencing the 4D in Winnipeg, *not* Fort William. (There was a third 4D in Regina, all part of the same chain of coffeehouses.)
John Einarson wrote in the first sentence of the paragraph in question, "The style that is credited to Young's Yorkville days and early Los Angeles period was nurtured not there, but in Winnipeg." Then Einarson quotes Neil about "Oh! Susannah" [Spelled this way in the book. Which is correct? Susanna or Susannah?], "Clementine," etc.
The Fourth Dimension in Winnipeg opened in June 1963. (I know this because I recently interviewed the manager who was there from the opening until it closed at the end of December 1965.)
Neil hung out and performed at the 4D with the Squires throughout 1964 (and one gig in March 1965), so if he saw Tim Rose and the Thorns perform there, it was most likely during this period. However, Tim Rose formed the Big 3 with (Mama) Cass Elliot and Jim Hendricks in 1962 and they recorded "The Banjo Song: Oh! Susanna" in 1963. This is what I'm confused about. Did Tim Rose play with both bands during the same period?

At 11/03/2011 12:05:00 AM, Blogger Sharry said...

I think "Oh! Susanna" is correct. (As opposed to "Oh! Susannah." (See link below.)!_Susanna_1.jpg

At 11/04/2011 07:01:00 AM, Anonymous sugarmtn said...


My source for the Gala setlist is very reliable and very credible. I'm sure it is correct.


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