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Roots in a 'Rising Sun'
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 21, 2000
Everyone knew the song was old, though they weren't sure where it came from. But in 1937, around Middlesboro's desperately poor Noetown section, it came from the mouth of the miner's daughter who lived by the railroad tracks, the girl named Georgia Turner.
One day, a man showed up from the East, a young guy in an old car trolling Kentucky's mountains with a bulky contraption to record people singing their songs. Georgia -- blond, pretty, just 16 -- gathered up her mother and headed over to Tillman Cadle's house. In a nasal drawl she performed her favorite, the twangy lament called Rising Sun Blues.
That day, Georgia Turner made her contribution to musical history.
Until she sang into Alan Lomax's Presto "reproducer," her beloved tune belonged primarily to the American folk tradition: staunchly regional, shifting as it was passed from this front porch to that one, rarely committed to writing.
On Sept. 15, 1937, it stepped into 20th century popular culture.
With each year the ripples widened -- into the folk revival and beyond, to a British Invasion band called the Animals that arranged the breakthrough version, The Hit, the one you hear in your head when you think of the song.
From there, as years passed, it crossed genres and oceans: Celtic and Latin, reggae and disco, trance and punk and easy listening. It has become a melody for a hip-hop artist's Haitian lyrics.
One American tune of many, up from the folkways, onto the highways and beyond -- propelled by technology and globalization and the desire to make two things: money and a difference. It is the story of modern mass culture, of taking something old, adding something personal and creating something universal.
It's the story of the song called House of the Rising Sun.
* * *
"Georgie, she's the first one I ever heard sing it," says Ed Hunter, who played harmonica at that 1937 session in Middlesboro. Still sure-footed at 78, he has outlived her by three decades and lives 200 yards from where her family's home once stood. "Where she got it, I don't know," he says. "There weren't many visitors, and she didn't go nowhere."
Middlesboro then was even more isolated than today, nearly 50 miles of winding roads from the nearest interstate highway. Tucked into rugged mountains just west of the Cumberland Gap, where thousands came west in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was laid out by English iron-ore speculators. But even before that, mountaineers of English, Scots and Irish stock, including some Turners, built lives in the hills and, in their isolation, preserved a rich tradition of music and balladry.
Out of this, it seems, Rising Sun Blues -- a.k.a. House in New Orleans or even Rising Sun Dance Hall -- bubbled up.
It probably started as a bowdlerization of British folk songs. Its melody, Lomax wrote, resembled one arrangement of Matty Groves, an English ballad dating to the 1600s. In Britain, the term "Rising Sun" has long been a euphemism for bordello; in 1953, aging English folk singer Harry Cox sung for Lomax a profane old song called She Was a Rum One. Its opening: "If you go to Lowestoft, and ask for the Rising Sun, there you'll find two old whores, and my old woman's one."
In America, House of the Rising Sun has always been more lament than dirty ditty. Various accounts have it kicking around the South since the Civil War, a cautionary tale for those who'd stray. Sometimes, when it came from a man's mouth, it was a gambler's song. More often, it was a woman's warning to shun that house in New Orleans that's "been the ruin of many a poor girl."
A few other musicians from the region were singing it between the world wars. Clarence Ashley, born three mountains over from Middlesboro in Bristol, Tenn., sang it as a rounder's lament. The song, he said shortly before his death in 1967, was "too old for me to talk about. I got it from some of my grandpeople." And a Library of Congress correspondent, in a handwritten version submitted in 1925, said he learned it "from a Southerner . . . of the type that generally call themselves "one o' th' boys.' "
So it was out there. Ashley, who said he taught it to Roy Acuff, may have recorded it in the 1920s, and the Library of Congress cites (but does not have) a couple of 78-rpm records that apparently date from before Georgia Turner sang it in 1937.
The world then was convulsing with innovation. Just as offset printing brought sheet music to the masses in the 1800s, now the revolution of records and radio was making the sound itself portable.
Enter Alan Lomax, who learned music-collecting from his father, John, a folk-song gatherer since Theodore Roosevelt's time. The Lomaxes believed technology was threatening local music, introducing homogenization that could overrun regional expression. Even so, by the mid-1930s, the son was using that very technology to capture people singing songs ladled from the stew of regional experience.
"It put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communications chain," Alan Lomax said years later.
The Library of Congress sent him out to record those neglected cultures. And in September 1937, his journeys took him to the hills of Eastern Kentucky.
* * *
In the weeks after Lomax recorded her, two other Kentucky musicians, both men from two counties north, sang versions of Rising Sun Blues into his Presto. Bert Martin in Horse Creek accompanied himself on guitar; Daw Henson up in Billys Branch sang a cappella. And though Lomax did credit Martin for "other stanzas," it was Georgia Turner's version, the only one with the verse that starts, "My mother she's a tailor," that he remembered best.
So Lomax gave her version a bit of immortality: In 1941, he included it in a songbook called Our Singing Country.
More important, he told his friends about it. And these weren't just any friends.
In the early 1940s, the New York folk scene was incubating as musicians black and white gathered at each other's apartments to share songs.
Most of them, more than being musicians, were popularizers. Though Woody Guthrie came straight from small-town Oklahoma, his strength was as a showman, bringing white regional experience -- via his own songs and others' -- into a radio and phonograph world. Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, a former prisoner from Louisiana, and Josh White, who grew up touring with black musicians in the 1920s, were helping to make "race music" more mainstream.
White, especially, took to the song. His intense, minor-key version, with the first melody that resembles the one familiar today, introduced a black bluesman's sensibility that entranced an audience different from Guthrie's. (Though Lomax said he taught White the arrangement, White later said he learned it from a "white hillbilly" in North Carolina.)
Roots music was popping up everywhere. Lead Belly sent Goodnight, Irene on its way. Aaron Copland adapted fiddler W.H. Stepp's version of Bonaparte's Retreat. Seeger, with his new group, the Weavers, turned to Africa for the melodic Wimoweh, which became the foundation for The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
So it was with Rising Sun, which, with the Weavers' help, became a standard during the folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. Clarence Ashley, meanwhile, was still singing his old-timey version and teaching it to guitar picker Doc Watson. Each musician brought a new interpretation, a new sensibility.
Then, in 1961, a skinny 20-year-old Woody Guthrie fan from Minnesota took a turn with the song. His musician friend Dave Van Ronk had arranged a haunting version, and the singer decided House of the Risin' Sun would be a memorable part of his debut album.
It turned out Bob Dylan was right.
* * *
As Burdon's fledgling musical group, the Animals, came together, he and band mate Alan Price heard others singing it; Dylan and Josh White made deep impressions. So in 1964, when Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis came to Britain on tour and the Animals wanted in, the song seemed an ideal solution.
"I realized one thing: You can't out-rock Chuck Berry," says Burdon, playing air guitar as he reminisces in New Orleans, which he visits frequently. "I thought, "Why don't we take this song, reorganize it, drop some of Dylan's lyrics and get Alan Price to rearrange it?"'
Through musicians like Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, the music of the folk revival had begun to be a real force in pop and rock. And the Animals were more than willing to participate.
Their version began with Hilton Valentine's now-famous guitar riff. Then Burdon's ragged voice began spitting out lyrics almost resentfully before the organ music kicked in. It was a throbbing, uniquely 1960s anthem.
The band joined the tour and ended the song with a lone red light bathing Burdon. The audience went nuts, and the Animals went straight to the recording studio. Their electric version of Georgia Turner's favorite song swept across the radio waves. On Sept. 5, 1964, The House of the Rising Sun displaced The Supremes' Where Did Our Love Go? to become Billboard's No. 1.
From there it went everywhere.
Through the decades, artist after artist claimed it and reshaped it: Disco. Country rock. Jazz. Punk. Cajun. Elevator music. Even German tango and harmonica renditions. A band called Frijid Pink recorded a version that a young serviceman named Gillis Turner grew to love while serving in Vietnam, and had no idea it was connected to his Aunt Georgia.
"I think that everybody who's had a bad day can relate to that song," he says.
It was even appropriated into hip-hop, a genre that relies upon the reinterpretation of music that came before. When Wyclef Jean used the melody of House of the Rising Sun and added Haitian lyrics, Georgia Turner's old song was enlisted once again -- to lament racism and police brutality in New York City in 1998.
"When you delve into it, you realize how pervasive traditional songs are in our culture," says Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. "They're so much a part of us, but we don't even recognize it."
* * *
Sunday churchgoers are finishing lunch as a friendly 59-year-old named Reno Taylor sits in a diner in Monroe, Mich., a pugnacious Detroit satellite town. He is discussing his mother, Georgia Turner, who died of emphysema in 1969 after 48 years of life.
He remembers her talking of hard times down in Kentucky and how they coped. "They sang," he says, "and they drank."
But her eldest son has not come only to reminisce; he has come to hear his mother sing.
Her voice is preserved on that old Lomax acetate disc in a climate-controlled Library of Congress archive, and the library has copied it onto a cassette, which sits on the table, next to the ketchup, in a hand-held recorder. "Play" is pushed.
"There is a house in New Orleans . . ."
Taylor tries to remain impassive. But this is, after all, the voice of his mother, dead 31 years. And here she is as a girl, singing the blues before life had dealt her so many reasons to do so.
"My mother she's a tailor . . ."
Taylor's eyes betray nothing. He sits ramrod straight, contemplating.
"My sweetheart he's a drunkard, Lord, Lord . . ."
Then his cheek muscles twitch. The hint of a smile dawns. It can't hold itself in.
"One foot is on the platform . . ."
Sure, Georgia Turner is buried on a hill a mile away, but for a fleeting instant she is present in the Monroe Diner, serenading her son on magnetic tape.
He never knew about the Rising Sun connection; he was in the service when Lomax tracked her down in 1963 and began sending what royalties there were. By then, Lomax told her, the song had been "pirated." Taylor's sister, Faye, has kept the stubs from the few checks that came -- $117.50 total, hardly enough to help support 10 children.
Taylor wishes she'd gotten enough to buy better medical treatment. "It would be so nice," he says, "if she did get some recognition for something she did good."
She did do good, it seems. Her favorite song is a ringing tone for a mobile phone in Hong Kong. It's background music in a Thai restaurant in Keene, N.H., and in a hotel in Nanchang, China -- and how many places in between? On the Internet, musicians upload their own Rising Suns; a few weeks ago, Gillis Turner's daughter downloaded the Frijid Pink version he so loved in Vietnam.
Why this song? Who knows? Georgia Turner didn't create it, but she sang it and it soared. Up from the folkways, onto the highways and beyond.
On the Internet, a computer-generated House of the Rising Sun file is credited this way: "By everyone." And that's it exactly. Each time a song moves from new mouth to fresh ear, it carries its past along.
If you listen just right, you can hear the chorus that came before. Clarence Ashley and Roy Acuff and Doc Watson are singing; so are Woody Guthrie and Josh White and Lead Belly, each long gone. The Weavers are harmonizing. Eric Burdon is belting out his best. Germany's Toots Thielemans is manning the mundharmonika.
And you can hear, too, the miner's daughter from Middlesboro who never asked for much and never got much in return. Georgia Turner, dead and silent 31 years, is still singing the blues away.
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