Oh! Susannah (with a banjo on my knee)

"Oh Susannah!" sheet music cover.
Oh Susannah!”, by Stephen C. Foster, Duncombe & Moon (London), s.d.

Oh! Susannah!‘ is a milestone in American popular music. After its launch and first publication in Pittsburgh, it sold more than 100.000 copies. Later numerous minstrel troupes performed and registered the song: from 1848 until 1951 it was copyrighted and published no less than 21 times! What we show here is the illustrated British sheet music published by Duncombe & Moon (Holborn London, s.d.).

Probably due to its country-wide popularity ‘Oh! Susannah!‘ became the unofficial theme of the Forty-Niners (1849 goldseekers). This success, together with a royalty rate of two cents per copy of sheet music sold, makes composer Stephen Foster commonly regarded as America’s first professional songwriter.

Portrait of Stephen Collins Foster, with a cover of the 'PoorOld Joe' sheet music (www.imagesmusicales.be)
Portrait of Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864). On the right, one of his other songs: ‘Poor Old Joe’ (C. Sheard, Musical Bouquet n° 2815, s.d.).

Oh! Susannah!‘ tells the story of a man travelling from Alabama to Louisiana in search of his love. His instrument accompanies him on the road, which brings us to today’s topic: the banjo.

Sheet music cover for 'Le Banjo', illustrated by R. de Valerio
Le Banjo‘ by Maurice Yvain, illustrated by R. de Valerio (Editions Salabert, Paris, 1921).

About the history of the banjo we found the following condensed summary on The Bitter Southerner website.

  1. The handmade gourd instruments that would become the modern banjo originated in West Africa;

    Banjo illustrations on various sheet music covers (by Girbal and Poulbot).
    Details from sheet music covers. Left a banjo player by Gaston Girbal, right a very young musician by Poulbot.
  2. Enslaved Africans carried the ‘banjar’ and its music to North America by way of the Caribbean;

    Sheet Music illustrated by Jack Roberts (1923)
    Jazzy-One (One-step de l’autruche)‘, by Dardany, illustrated by Jack Roberts (Editions Lucien Brulé, Paris, 1923).
  3. Traditional string music (and the banjo itself) was appropriated from slave culture and was spread into the greater American popular culture through minstrel shows and blackface performances;

    Two sheet music covers with sitting banjo players
    Left: ‘Whistling Rufus‘ by Kerry Mills (Gehrmans Musikförlag, Stockholm, 1904). Right: ‘The Pink Negro’s Song‘ by Edouard Jacovacci (Paris, 1921)
  4. The banjo was popularized throughout the United States and Europe by white performers, with various regional playing styles emerging and evolving simultaneously – from the rhythmic role the banjo played in traditional New Orleans jazz to the fingerpicking sound of bluegrass that bloomed in the Appalachian mountains, among many others.

    Two sheet music covers of banjo players (www.imagesmusicales.be)
    Two sheet music covers of banjo players in the swamp or jungle. Left: ‘Funny Frog Dance‘ by Laurent Hallet, illustration by Clérice frères,1912. On the right: ‘Ballade Argentine‘ by E.V. Malderen, illustrated by Gems, 1920.

Essentially the instrument is a drum with a long neck attached for securing a set of strings. The strings are supported by a bridge that sits on the drum membrane. The bridge vibrates up and down as the drum resonates. So there are effectively two different periodic changes to the tension of the string at the same time: (1) the string’s natural frequency when picked, plucked or struck, and (2) the drum’s frequency of vibration. It is this modulating frequency that produces the banjo’s bright metallic timbre. (This is all better explained by Nobel prize-winning physicist David Politzer in ‘The Secret of the Banjo’s Twang‘.)

Choppy thought of this politically very incorrect illustration of a black banjo player. ('Sur un air de Shimmy' by
Choppy thought of this politically very incorrect illustration of a black banjo player for ‘Sur un air de Shimmy‘ by René Mercier (publisher Marcel Labbé, Paris, 1921).

The typical twangy sound of the banjo, its limited artistic… eh… rather plain or monotonous resonance, together with its rural background and folky/country/traditional connotation, probably gave rise to numerous jokes (aka banjokes) on the instrument, the ‘music’ and its players. Here we go.

  • How many strings does a banjo have?
    Five too many…

    Caricatures of banjo players on sheet music covers (illustrated by Girbal and Monni)
    Striking caricatures of banjo players. Left: ‘Dansez le Shimmy‘ by L. Halet and V. Telly, illustrated by G. Girbal (Paris, 1921). Right: ‘Jim‘ by D. Rulli and C. Bruno, illustrated by Monni (Rome, 1929).
  • No matter how much you tune it–it will still sound like a banjo.

    Two sheet music covers of banjo players, illustrated by Peter De Greef.
    Two layouts of Peter Degreef’s fantastic sheet music cover. Left: ‘Fox-Trot Macabre‘ by Teddy Moon (Mado, Bruxelles, not in our collection);  on the right: ‘Bing! Bam Boum!‘ by Teddy Moon and Charles Tutelier (Office Musical, Bruxelles, 1923).
  • Why was the banjo player standing on the roof? Because they told him the drinks were on the house.

    Four sheet music covers illustrated by De Valerio
    Four sheet music covers by De Valerio: ‘Whistle away your blues‘ (1926), ‘Wagneriana‘ (1922), ‘On m’a!‘ (1924) and ‘By the Campfire‘ (1919), all published by Francis Salabert, Paris.
  • How do you make a banjo player slow down?
    Put some sheet music in front of him.

    1926 sheet music illustrated by N.G. Granath
    Rolfs Dansalbum 1926‘ illustrated by N.G. Granath (Ernst Rolfs Musikförlags, Stockholm, 1926).
  • Like the banjo itself, whose twang can clear clogged sinuses and remove stubborn wallpaper, the mountain music is an acquired taste.

    A banjo brings gaiety. Left: 'What an Afternoon!', by Charles Collette (cover illustration by Alfred Concannen,)
    A banjo brings gaiety. Left: ‘What an Afternoon!‘, by Charles Collette, cover illustration by Alfred Concannen (unknown publisher, s.d.). Right: ‘Molly‘ by Michel De Cock, illustrated by Karel Van Seben (Amsterdam, s.d.)
  • What is the range of a banjo? About 10 meters if you throw it hard enough.

    Trios of banjo players. Two sheet music covers illustrated by Maas and Herzig.
    Trios of banjo players. Left: ‘Banjo Playing‘ by J.A. Bronkhorst, illustrated by Maas (Varia, Nijmegen, s.d.). Right: ‘1000 Takte Tanz – Band 6‘, illustrated by Herzig (Berlin, 1931).
  • Don’t tell my mom I’m a banjo player.
    She thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.

    Banjo playing Pierrots and harlequins. Various details from sheet music covers .
    Banjo playing Pierrot and Harlequins. Various details from sheet music covers illustrated by Lopresti (s.d.), Louis Oppenheim (1912) and Loris Riccio (s.d.).
  • How can you get six banjo players to play in harmony?
    Only give one of them a banjo.

    Sheet music cover 'Nostalgie de Nègres (Des Negers Heimweh)', illustrated by Clérice frères
    Nostalgie de Nègres (Des Negers Heimweh)‘ by Robert Vollstedt, illustrated by Clérice frères (Au Ménestrel, Paris, 1906).
  • Did you hear that they’ve isolated the gene for banjo playing?
    It’s the first step to a cure.

    Banjo elements from our Illustrated Sheet Music collection
    A jumble of banjo elements from our Illustrated Sheet Music collection.
  • Banjo player: “When I die, I want to leave the world a better place.”
    Guitar player: “Don’t worry, you will.”

    Sheet music covers with frantic banjo dancing.
    Frantic banjo dancing. Left: ‘Johnson‘ by Rulli and Cherubini, illustrated by Monni (Casa della Canzone, Rome, s.d.). Right: ‘Banjo‘ by David Ottoson, illustrated by D. Sim (Anderssons Musikforlag, Malmö, 1914).
  • What’s the fastest way to tune a banjo?
    With wire cutters.

    Relentless banjo happiness. Four sheet music covers from www.imagesmusicales.be (illustrated by Ortmann, Dola, Lindström and Fabien Loris)
    Relentless banjo happiness. Top left: ‘Banjo Song (Original Jazz-Band)‘ by Frank Stafford, illustrated by W. Ortmann (Berliner Bohème Verlag, 1921). Top right: ‘Her, me and the Charleston‘ by José Lucchesi, illustrated by Dola (?) (Max Eschig & Cie, Paris, 1927). Bottom left: ‘Flickan Därhemma‘ by John Charles, illustrated by Lindström (Derwin & C° , Stockholm, 1930). Bottom right: ‘Cupidon (Alone at last)‘ by Ted Fiorito, illustrated by F. Loris (Publications Francis-Day, Paris, 1925).
  • A man walked into a bar with his alligator and asked the bartender, “Do you serve banjo players here?”
    “Sure do,” replied the bartender.
    “Good,” said the man.
    “Give me a beer, and I’ll have a banjo player for my ‘gator.”

    Two banjo sheet music covers from Illustrated Sheet Music website (www.imagesmusicales.be)
    Left:’Jojo‘ by Hubert Mouton, illustrated by Clérice frères (Au Ménestrel, Paris, 1913). Right: ‘Sugar Foot Strut‘ by Pierce, Myers and Schwab, illustrator unknown (Marks Music Co., New York, 1927).

(all jokes from Phillip Mann’s Banjo Tab Collection and Bluegrass Information Site)

Enough, enough! Stop the stupid jokes. It’s time for serious playing by 8-year old Jonny Mizzone:

Netta, the Most Beautiful Girl in the World

Netta‘ by Octave Grillaert published by Le Réveil artistique, Brussels in 1931.

The Netta of this song is a former Miss Belgium who became the first Belgian Miss Universe in 1931. Miss Universe titles had been awarded since 1926 during the International Pageant of Pulchritude held in Galveston, Texas. The Great Depression put an end to this yearly frivolous fuss in the United States, only to surface until after WWII.

Second International Pageant of Pulchritude in Galveston, Texas, 1927

Annette (Netta) Duchâteau was a modern and daring girl who got herself a pilot license when she was only 19 years old. Even so, crossing the Atlantic in 1931 by boat to participate in the Pageant in Texas must have been quite an adventure for the young lady. The year before, Netta had been crowned Miss Belgium. Notable members of the 1930 Belgian jury were the Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels (Frank Lateur indeed) and the painter Albert Saverys.

Phtograph of Stijn Streuvels and Albert Saverys.
Miss Belgium jury members Stijn Streuvels and Albert Saverys, the two men in the middle of this drinking group (source: http://www.saverys2014.be/albert-saverys).

Here we see a short celebration of Netta having won her title, on the tune of the Brabançonne.

Thanks to an interesting short documentary about the 1929 Austrian Miss Universe, we can visualise the circumstances to which the contestants had to adapt. Like all other contenders, Netta had to be chaperoned (in her case by her mother). She needed a medical certificate to ensure that she could endure standing still on a cart pushed around between the masses for hours, four days on end during the street parades. The candidates could not go out alone without written permission of the committee. They had to swear that they were not artists, did not indulge in drinking nor smoking. They were not allowed to use any kind of make-up. Moreover for Netta the alienation must have been particularly hard: she didn’t speak English.


After her victory, Netta turned down all American marriage proposals. She also refused offers to appear on stage or in commercials, and returned to her native Belgium. There she was welcomed like royalty and again received a lot of marriage proposals. Her success was enormous  compared to Anny Duny, our first Miss Belgium. She appeared in countless magazines and advertising campaigns before becoming a stage actress.

Netta Duchateau praising toothpaste and mouthwash in an advertisement for Bi-oxyne and Rubi-oxyne
Netta Duchateau praising toothpaste and mouthwash in an advertisement for Bi-oxyne and Rubi-oxyne.

Allegedly Netta inspired the American illustrator Lawrence Sterne Stevens when he created the emblem for Belga, a former Belgian cigarette brand that was launched in 1923. The brands name and national colours appealed to the patriotic feelings after the Great War. Sterne Stevens drew a typical modern girl, a flapper with bobbed hair and a cloche hat. In contrast to the earlier Belga Girl by Leo Marfurt, she looks more self-reliant. She is glamorous, accentuates her looks with make-up, and expresses a certain sensuality. And she smokes!

Left: Poster for Belga cigarettes by Leo Marfurt. Middle: Poster for Belga cigarettes by Lawrence Sterne Stevens. Right: Netta Duchateau

Even René Magritte created designs for the Belga cigarettes. He didn’t need a beauty queen for a model though, he had his beautiful wife Georgette. He painted her looking straight at the viewer, holding a cigarette before his familiar blue sky with white clouds. Although Magritte referred to his work in publicity as ‘idiotic work’, this design blurs the boundary between painting and advertising. The second advertising image for Belga cigarettes is signed Studio Dongo. This was a small advertising company he owned together with his brother Paul who was also a composer. Both Magritte’s projects for Belga were rejected.

magritte belga5
Left: Advertising project for Belga cigarettes by René Magritte. RIght: Poster design for Belga cigarettes by Studio Dongo.

Thanks to Netta’s victory in Galveston the next Miss Universe pageant was held in Spa, Belgium. It was won by a Turkish beauty. At the end of the video, we get a glimpse of Maurice de Waleffe, the omnipresent gentleman when beauty contests had to be organised. He is recognisable by his telltale moustache.