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Going Back to New Orleans

Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives Flickr

I had been indecisive on a topic for this week’s history lesson, but yesterday my stereo provided the answer. A song with such an illustrious history deserves a post of its very own.

The House of the Rising Sun” is an American folk song about a life ruined. Although well known, the song remains mysterious. The origins are cloudy at best, numerous covers have been recorded, and the exact location of the house is still unknown.

The earliest known recorded version of the song was produced by Alan Lomax, who between 1937 and 1942 was an assistant curator for the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress. In 1937, he recorded a version sung by 16-year-old Georgia Turner, and credited the lyrics to her.

One of the first remakes was by Dave Van Ronk, who in the early 1960s recorded his own version, which in turn inspired Bob Dylan, as mentioned in the liner notes of his debut album.

Both the Van Ronk and Dylan versions maintain Turner’s original lyrics and perspective, telling the story from the female point of view. Both are quite folksy, with Van Ronk’s incorporating a bit more of a jangly-blues feeling.

Around this same time, folk singer Joan Baez recorded the song for her debut album. Baez’s voice is absolutely pristine on this recording, and this is my favorite version by a female singer.

In 1964, The Animals from Newcastle released their version.

The Animals seemed to breathe a new kind of life into the piece. The music builds to a frightening crescendo, and his voice makes me believe that he truly is an unhappy slave to the House of the Rising Sun. It’s also a great example of English rock importing American soul and rock and roll sounds, something The Rolling Stones did quite well. Interestingly, when The Animals first began to play this song live they were touring with Chuck Berry.

A wonderful aspect of this song is the flexibility of the gender of the protagonist. The song is originally sung from a female perspective, and tells the story of a woman who wished she had listened to her mother, but was instead corrupted by her gambling “sweetheart” and ends up in the hellish House of the Rising Sun. The house is presumably a whorehouse, and the girl is now a working-girl, serving a lonely life sentence.

The male perspective, most notably the version by The Animals, comes from a protagonist whose life is ruined by the house. In these versions, his father was the gambling man, and it is he who is going spend his life ‘in sin and misery, in the house of the rising sun’. It’s odd to think that a whorehouse could be the ruin of its male clientele, with no mention at all of the women themselves.

Many attempts have been made to discover the whereabouts of the actual ‘House of the Rising Sun’. I came upon an article on gambit.com, which details one of the most compelling arguments for the origins of the house:

Another story proffers the famed house was at 826-830 St. Louis St. and was a brothel originally run by Madam Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname is French for “rising sun.”

 

Today, the three-story white building on St. Louis Street is owned by attorney Darlene Jacobs Levy and houses her Home Finders International real estate company. She inherited the building when her husband died in the late 1980s, and she began renovating the front apartment of the derelict building as a place for her father to live. Workmen at the site discovered risqué postcards of half-dressed women from the 1800s behind a wall and uncovered fancy fluted columns and a ceiling mural of a golden rising sun surrounded by three cherubs. Levy says the house was a bordello operated by a succession of different madams for many years before her husband bought the building.

How neat is that?

Both male and female-centered versions end with the same acceptance of a ruined life and an inescapable fate. Each time, the protagonist, “has one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train” and has decided to return to New Orleans “to wear that ball and chain.”

 Artist: Georgia Turner | Song: House of the Rising Sun

 Artist: Bob Dylan | Song: House of the Rising Sun

Artist: Joan Baez | Song: House of the Rising Sun

 Artist: The Animals | Song: House of the Rising Sun

 

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