Folk singer Suzie Ungerleider drops Oh Susanna moniker over its racist past

·2 min read
Folk singer Suzie Ungerleider drops Oh Susanna moniker over its racist past

TORONTO — Canadian folk singer Suzie Ungerleider says she's retiring her Oh Susanna moniker, adopted from Stephen Foster's 1848 American folk song "Oh! Susanna," after learning more about its racist roots.

The two-time Juno Award nominee from Vancouver posted a message on her website Monday explaining the decision to drop the name after more than 25 years.

She will now perform under her birth name.

Ungerleider said at the start of her career it "seemed perfect" to blend her real name with one of "the great American folk songs that were a source of inspiration."

"Oh Susanna was a kind of shorthand to impress upon the listener’s mind, the time and place where I wanted them to travel — along the rusty old trainyards to the fields, mines and hills of mythical America," she wrote.

But the Massachusetts-born singer-songwriter said it wasn't clear to her that lyrics from many of Foster's songs had been "whitewashed" over the years, sometimes by the songwriter himself, to remove some of the "plantation dialect" he originally mimicked.

In the case of "Oh! Susanna," the song was part of minstrelsy performances where white performers wore blackface. Its original lyrics also included use of the N-word.

Ungerleider said she doesn't remember when she first learned of the original lyrics, but that for some time she considered them an "ugly relic of the past" that had been "changed for the better."

During the creation of her 2014 album "Namedropper," which featured Jim Cuddy and Ron Sexsmith, she began to focus more on her upbringing in Canada, and said she began feeling as if the name Oh Susanna was "a costume that no longer fit, but that I had sewn myself into."

It wasn't until people took to the streets last summer over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that Ungerleider said she began to consider how she might be perpetuating racism by continuing to use the name.

"Suddenly those racist lyrics felt absolutely current," she wrote.

"It really became so obvious that we have a long way to go... 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's manager said the changes have been rolling out over the past few weeks across streaming platforms and her social handles, which now identify her as the "singer-songwriter formerly known as Oh Susanna."

The musician joins others who have dropped their stage names over the past year to disassociate themselves with slavery and a pre-Civil War era of the United States, including the Dixie Chicks, who renamed themselves as the Chicks, and Lady Antebellum, who adopted the name Lady A.


Read Suzie Ungerleider's letter in full:

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press