Suzie Ungerleider Ditches Her Oh Susanna Moniker over Song's Racist History

"I felt that if I were to continue to use the name Oh Susanna I would be passively accepting and perpetuating its racism"

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Mar 22, 2021

Canadian singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider — known best as Oh Susanna — has announced she has dropped her longtime moniker inspired by Stephen Foster's 1848 song "Oh! Susanna," due to the song's racist lyrics and ties to Blackface minstrelsy.

Ungerleider announced the name change through her website today, writing, "In 1995, taking my stage name from the famous Stephen Foster song seemed perfect. Oh Susanna was both a play on my own real name, Suzanne, as well as a way to hearken back to the great American folk songs that were a source of inspiration for my own music."

The songwriter shared that her moniker "was a kind of shorthand to impress upon the listener's mind, the time and place where I wanted them to mythical America" and "a persona that gave me the courage to climb up onstage and reveal what is in my heart."

However, writing and recording 2014's Namedropper (featuring Canadian songwriters Jim Cuddy, Melissa McClelland, Joel Plaskett, Ron Sexsmith and more) and 2017's A Girl in Teen City (a musical reflection on her younger years in Vancouver) led Ungerleider to turn her focus back to Canada.

She wrote, "Pretty soon Oh Susanna started to feel like a costume that no longer fit but that I had sewn myself into. Instead of being liberating, the name Oh Susanna started to feel like a constraint."

Ungerleider shared that she became aware of the lesser-known history of Foster's song last year, specifically, its ties to minstrelsy and lyrics which Foster had written in "plantation dialect" that "had long been changed and...eliminated in order to 'whitewash' its racism."

"This past summer, after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and people rightly took to the streets to express their outrage at this happening again and again, it really became so obvious that we have a long way to go, that racism is still strongly embedded in our minds and our institutions and that it is only privileged white folks like me who can be blind to it even though we benefit from it and perpetuate it through our acceptance and silence," Ungerleider wrote.

"Suddenly those racist lyrics felt absolutely current. Right here and right now, the lyrics conjure and make present violence against Black people. This is the power of language. By saying something, you make it happen in the listener's mind. It didn't matter to me that not very many people know that the original lyrics to the song 'Oh Susanna!' are racist. I felt that if I were to continue to use the name Oh Susanna I would be passively accepting and perpetuating its racism."

You can read Ungerleider's complete announcement here.

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