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House of the Rising Sun
sun As we remember the song with that immortal opening line "there is a house in New Orleans…" it's worth remembering that the woman who sang that very first recorded version; Georgia Turner died penniless of emphysema in 1969. She was just 48 years old, she made just 117.50 dollars from the song in royalties, a sobering thought when you think how famous the song is now.


Back in the early 20s, the name "Rising Sun" was popularly attributed to brothels in our Anglo/American culture. The traditional version of "The House of the Rising Sun" speaks, not of a boy's experience, but of a girl corrupted into a life of ruin.

Confusion probably starts with the fact that no member of the band The Animals wrote the lyrics nor music of "The House of the Rising Sun." (If you look at the really small print on their 1966 album, The Best of the Animals, you'll find that it was only arranged by Burdon/Chandler/Price/Steele/Valentine.)

According to folklorist Alan Lomax in his book Our Singing Country (1941), the melody of "The House of the Rising Run" is a traditional English ballad and the lyrics were written by Georgia Turner and Bert Martin (both from Kentucky). The song was first recorded in the 1920s by black bluesman Texas Alexander and later covered by Leadbelly, Charlie Byrd, Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, Henry Mancini, Dolly Parton, David Allan Coe, John Fahey, Waylon Jennings, Tim Hardin, Buster Poindexter, Marianne Faithful, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan . . . just to name a few.

Here from Lomax's book are the traditional lyrics :


There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
It's been the ruin of many a poor girl,
and me, O God, for one.

If I had listened what Mamma said,
I'd 'a' been at home today.
Being so young and foolish, poor boy,
let a rambler lead me astray.

                    (Webmaster note:
                    why the use of the word boy here,
                    if the song is about a girl?)

Go tell my baby sister
never do like I have done
to shun that house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun.

My mother she's a tailor;
she sold those new blue jeans.
My sweetheart, he's a drunkard, Lord, Lord,
drinks down in New Orleans.

The only thing a drunkard needs
is a suitcase and a trunk.
The only time he's satisfied
is when he's on a drunk.

Fills his glasses to the brim,
passes them around
only pleasure he gets out of life
is hoboin' from town to town.

One foot is on the platform
and the other one on the train.
I'm going back to New Orleans
to wear that ball and chain.

Going back to New Orleans,
my race is almost run.
Going back to spend the rest of my days
beneath that Rising Sun.

Did the House of the Rising Sun ever really exist? A guidebook called Offbeat New Orleans asserts that the real House of the Rising Sun was at 826-830 St. Louis St. between 1862 and 1874 and was purportedly named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname translates to "The Rising Sun."

But no one knows for certain. When the lead singer of The Animals, Eric Burdon, made the song popular in the 60s, Burdon was overwhelmed by the theories:

"People would come up to me and say, "You want to know where the real House of the Rising Sun is?" And I'd say, "I've heard that one before. Then I started going along for the ride. I'd go to women's prisons, coke dealers' houses, insane asylums, men's prisons, private parties. They just wanted to get me there."

Then, with a laugh, he adds, "They're trying to build up tourism, and here's this Brit singing about a whorehouse."           Source: www.straightdope.com

NOTE: I have a copy of Dolly Parton's rendition of the song and while she does use some of these lyrics (as above); she also made lyric changes in her recording.
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House of the Rising Sun is a song so steeped in American folklore and tradition that it’s almost impossible to put a date on its origins. It is possible however to trace back the exact moment when it stepped into 20th century popular culture, that date was September 15, 1937, and it all happened in Middlesboro, not Middlesbrough in the north east of England, although the north east of England does play it’s part in the story some three decades later. No, it all began in Middlesboro, Kentucky when a music historian by the name of Alan Lomax arrived at the doorstep of a poor miner’s daughter by the name of Georgia Turner. Lomax was making recordings of popular folk songs sung by ordinary people in their natural environments for the Library of Congress and his travels brought him to little Georgia who was just 16, he hulked out his cumbersome presto reproducer recording machine and she sang her favourite sad song for him, an old bluesy folk tune about living a life of sin called Rising Son Blues. It had been about for years but never committed to tape before, indeed Lomax believed it dated back to 1600’s England while others dated it to the American Civil war, either way history had been made!

The song was recorded in 1937, from there the legendary Lomax put the song in a songbook and it spread like wildfire through the folk music scene on the east coast with versions springing up in the 1940’s from the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and bluesman Josh White. Not bad for a song warning about the perils of prostitution eh? The House of the Rising Sun was traditionally a euphemism for a bordello in English circles, and the song is really little more than a tale of woe concerning a womans' decline into the oldest profession in the world. Amazing that no one really picked up on that and censored the whole thing from the start! With every passing year the fame of the song grew until Bob Dylan covered it on his debut album (calling it House of the Rising Sun) and in 1964, a band of R&B reprobates from Newcastle in the north east of England called The Animals came to record it and the face of modern music was changed forever.

Apparently Chas Chandler of the band heard the Josh White version, not the Bob Dylan version as is often thought. Eric Burdon has famously been quoted as saying, the bands' famous producer Mickie Most "did nothing but nod his head when the song was being recorded"; something that Most himself doesn’t really deny. It was a revolutionary single, it was over four minutes for a start - a length unheard of in pop circles. But more than anything, it was the wonderful arrangement that really sold it as something different. The Animals electric version of Georgia Turner’s favourite tune swept across the world, taking them to number one at home and also hitting the top spot Stateside on September 5, 1964, replacing the Supremes ‘Where did our Love Go’ at number one on the billboard charts. It was arguably the first folk rock tune, Bob Dylan loved it so much he decided to drop the acoustic sound he was famous for and took up the electric sound for his next album Bringing it All Back Home - pop music thus changed forever. The song has also got more than its fair share of celebrity fans, it’s Melvyn Braggs' favourite tune ever.

In the years since, The Animals version has caused any amount of legal wrangling because Alan Price took the arrangers credit for the keyboard refrain he added to the song, arguably the Hilton Valentine guitar work is just as influential (just ask anyone who has ever learned guitar and they will tell you they learnt that famous riff!) but he never made a penny from it, the band still hold grudges about the credit to this day.

Ever since that break through hit in 1964, the song has been recorded in disco style, Cajun style, there are punk, jazz, even easy listening versions of it - even the hip hop world has embraced the tune with Wyclef Jean recently recording a version. (There are at least 250 artists who recorded the song.) Needless to say every old building in New Orleans claims to be that fateful House of the Rising Sun, but in reality it’s impossible to judge if it’s all just to get publicity and encourage tourism.

As we remember the song with that immortal opening line "there is a house in New Orleans…" it's worth remembering that the woman who sang that very first recorded version; Georgia Turner died penniless of emphysema in 1969. She was just 48 years old, she made just 117.50 dollars from the song in royalties, a sobering thought when you think how famous the song is now. Written by Ralph McLean




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