Here’s a song you’ll recognize, and yet… it’s a side of the Gold Rush story you might not have heard about in school: The melody is Stephen Foster‘s first big hit, “Oh Susannah” (1847), ubiquitous in its time and still common in the “folk song” tradition over a century and a half later. Foster’s original composition features two world-changing technologies…
“Euclid… is no child for effecting social revolutions, but an impassioned song may set a world in conflagration.” ~ The London Times (3 September 1852)
Benjamin Hanby wrote Nelly Gray in 1856, in response to a fugitive slave case …
Stephen Foster’s anthem recounts “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in three verses.
A relentless love song & bitter critique of slavery:
…updates Dan Emmett’s “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel” for an abolitionist audience.
This rewrite of “Battle-Hymn of the Republic” puts the agency of social and economic upheaval squarely on the shoulders — or rather, under the boot-heels — of Colored Troops.
Wallis Willis created the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” sometime before 1862; we like to pair it with this 1862 photograph by Concord, NH’s own H.P Moore.
Frederick Douglass (1845) ~ “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears…”
Here are a few versions of Dan Emmett’s song, displaying the far-reaching sense of international politics and breaking-news commentary to be found on the antebellum popular stage…
Stephen Foster’s 1851 song “Old Folks At Home” provides an excellent introduction to the antebellum period:
After the Emancipation Proclamation changed the face of the Civil War, Henry Clay Work released this sequel to his popular “Kingdom Coming”: