When I was four years old, my sister Suzanne, two years older than me, died of polio. Her death changed my whole life. My parents had been separated, but the death of their daughter brought them together again. I and my mother had been living with my grandmother in West Virginia—I was a confirmed hillbilly. We moved to Oakland in the San Francisco bay area to be with my father. Everyone there laughed at my West Virginia accent, and I worked hard to learn how to talk like everybody else.
As a result of that experience, the song “Oh, Susanna” has always had special meaning for me. It is a minstrel song by Stephen Foster (1826–1864), first published in 1848. It is among the most popular American songs ever written.
Here are the words of the first verse and the chorus:
I came from Alabama, Wid a banjo on my knee,
I’m gwyne to Louisiana, My true love for to see.
It rain’d all night the day I left, The weather it was dry,
The sun so hot I froze to death; Susanna, don’t you cry.
Oh! Susanna, Oh don’t you cry for me,
cos’ I’ve come from Alabama, Wid my banjo on my knee
To this day, whenever I hear that song, I remember my sister and grieve once more over her death.