Early prints of "Oh! Susanna" by Stephen Foster transmit versions of the tune that differ strikingly from one another. It is likely that these variants arose as "Susanna" was orally transmitted among minstrel-show performers. Variant readings are compared in order to establish a stemma that shows not only the filiation of sources, but also the ways in which oral and written aspects were mixed in the transmission of "Susanna." The variants in versions of "Susanna" demonstrate four general tendencies of oral transmission: (1) a tendency to alter rhythms in order to clarify the beat; (2) a tendency to pentatonicize the melody; (3) a tendency for a salient harmony to draw the melody to the chord root; and (4) a tendency to eliminate differences between parallel passages. Analysis reveals that the four tendencies are also present in the transmitted versions of other songs from the repertory of nineteenth-century American minstrelsy.
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John Spitzer; Oh! Susanna: Oral Transmission and Tune Transformation. Journal of the American Musicological Society 1 April 1994; 47 (1): 90–136. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/3128837
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