Bananarama was a British power trio of 80s ladies who had already achieved international stardom by the time of their 1986 smash hit, “(I’m Your) Venus.” You may know that the New Wave hit was a cover of the Shocking Blue’s 1969 international chart-topper.
What you may not know is that the song can actually trace its roots back more than 120 years to the familiar American standard, “Oh! Susanna.”
You may also be surprised (but not shocked) to learn that “Oh! Susanna” was pretty damn racist. So how did a racist antebellum gold-mining anthem become a massive MTV-era staple?
How did Susanna become Venus?
Stephen Foster—Oh! Susanna (1848)
Stephen Foster is recognized as the Father of American Music, and songs like “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Oh! Susanna” were among the biggest hits of their time. Hits, at the time, were defined by sheet music sales. Foster was an absolute rock star in the era before recorded music.
But Foster was also a complicated figure.
Was Stephen Foster Both Racist and Pro-Abolition? Possibly.
Foster was born to Northern parentage. However, some accounts suggest his family did not support abolition. By contrast, there are passages in Foster’s own writing that suggests he opposed slavery. Still, it isn’t entirely clear.
Details on his personal life are surprisingly scarce. We don’t know how we felt. However, many of his most famous compositions contain startlingly racist lyrics.
Foster wrote many songs in the blackface minstrel style that dominated popular music in America for much for the mid- to late-19th century.
The original lyrics to “Oh! Susanna” serve as a dramatic example, in fact.
The Original Susanna
Rolling Stone editor Jonathan Bernstein provides an excellent write-up on the song’s troubling history, and provides the original Foster lyrics:
I jump’d aboard the telegraph
And trabbled down de ribber
De lectrick fluid magnified
And kill’d five hundred N****r
De bulgine bust and de hoss ran off
I really thought I’d die
I shut my eyes to hold my bref
Susanna don’t you cry
It is only one of numerous examples from Foster’s early catalogue using similar language. And this language was par for the course in the popular blackface genre, where white musicians and comedians co-opted and debased black culture to widespread commercial success.
“Oh! Susanna” Becomes a Gold Rush Anthem
Foster published the song in 1848 and it rapidly emerged as the biggest hit in American history to that point. By some accounts, no song had previously sold more than 5000 copies. “Oh! Susanna” sold more than 100,000.
It became the unofficial anthem of the 49ers who trekked west for gold, and it wove its way into the fabric of American culture.
Recordings of this song number in the hundreds or thousands. Lyrical variations are just as numerous. Here’s a cleaned up version that still captures the minstrel tone popular at the time.
But what the hell does any of this have to do with Bananarama?
The Big 3—The Banjo Song (1963)
Fast-forward 100 years. “Oh! Susanna” is an American standard. The most offensive verses have long been stricken from the record. Certainly, though, those original lyrics remained in circulation south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Nonetheless, stripped of its racist language and minstrelsy cadence, “Oh! Susanna” could even be fodder for lefty folk revivalists like the Big 3.
Tim Rose, Cass Elliot, and Jim Hendricks (no relation to that other guy) joined forces in 1963 and recorded a completely restructured take on “Oh! Susanna” called “The Banjo Song.”
One year later, the band ruptured. Tim Rose went solo. Elliot and Hendricks married. Elliot became Mama Cass, formed the Mamas and the Papas, and made history.
The Shocking Blue-Venus (1969)
“The Banjo Song” might have been a footnote but for one thing. A Dutch rock band called The Shocking Blue borrowed their arrangement, rewrote the lyrics, and called it “I’m Your (Venus)”
“Venus” topped the charts in nine countries. It was the first Dutch song to reach #1 in the U.S., and it would go on to sell 5 million copies worldwide.
Stars on 45 Medley (1981)
Should I include this? I’m not sure. But I have a soft spot for the ridiculous, so here we go. “Venus” is used somewhere in this brutal Euro-disco medley, which mashes songs by the Archies, Freddy & the Dreamers, and the Beatles into a melange of embarrassment. I note it here because it held the top spot on the U.S. charts for a single week—June 20, 1981.
Far more important is the fact that Bananarama—a trio of British singers from London—included a cover of the Shocking Blue song on their third release, True Confessions.
The song was once again a #1 international hit, topping the charts in 6 countries, and catapulting Bananarama into superstar status on the strength of a provocative MTV video that received dominant airplay in the summer of ’86.