“There is a house in New Orleans. They call the Rising Sun. And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy. And, God, I know I’m one.”
The 1960s rock band the Animals will tell you a tale to convince you to get vaccinated. Don’t believe me? Follow along.
The first hints of the song “House of the Rising Sun” rolled out of the hills of Appalachia.
Somewhere in the Golden Triangle, far away from New Orleans, where Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee rise in quiet desolation, a warning song about a tailor and a drunk emerged. Sometime around the Civil War, a hint of a tune began. Over the next century, it evolved, until it became cemented in rock culture 50 years ago by The Animals, existing as the version played most commonly today.
In the mid-19th century, medicine shows rambled through the South, stopping in places like Noetown or Daisy. The small towns would empty out for the day to see the entertainers, singers, and jugglers perform. Hundreds gathered in the hot summer day, the entertainment solely a pretext for the traveling doctors to sell their wares, the snake oil, and cure-alls, as well as various patent medicines.
These were isolated towns, with no deliveries, few visitors, and the railroad yet to arrive. Frequently, the only news from outside came from these caravans of entertainers and con men who swept into town. They were like Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz, or a current-day Dr. Oz, luring the crowd with false advertising, selling colored water, and then disappearing before you realized you were duped. Today, traveling doctors of the same ilk convince parents to not vaccinate their children, tell them to visit stem cell centers that claim false cures, and offer them a shiny object with one hand while taking their cash with the other.
Yet, there was a positive development in the wake of these patent medicine shows: the entertainment lingered. New songs traveled the same journeys as these medicine shows – new earworms that would then be warbled in the local bars, while doing chores around the barn, or simply during walks on the Appalachian trails.
In 1937, Alan Lomax arrived in Noetown, Ky., with a microphone and an acetate record and recorded the voice of 16-year-old Georgia Turner singing “House of the Rising Sun.” She didn’t know where she heard that song, but most likely picked it up at the medicine show.
One of those singers was Clarence Ashley, who would croon about the Rising Sun Blues. He sang with Doc Cloud and Doc Hauer, who offered tonics for whatever ailed you. Perhaps Georgia Turner heard the song in the early 1900s as well. Her 1937 version contains the lyrics most closely related to the Animals’ tune.
Lomax spent the 1940s gathering songs around the Appalachian South. He put these songs into a songbook and spread them throughout the country. He would also return to New York City and gather in a room with legendary folk singers. They would hear these new lyrics, new sounds, and make them their own.
In that room would be Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White, the fathers of folk music. The music Lomax pulled out of the mountains in small towns would become new again in the guitars and harmonicas of the Greenwich Village singers and musicians. Pete Seeger performed with the Weavers, named because they would weave songs from the past into new versions.
“House of the Rising Sun” was woven into the folk music landscape, evolving and growing. Josh White is credited with changing the song from a major key into the minor key we know today. Bob Dylan sang a version. And then in 1964, Eric Burdon and The Animals released their version, which became the standard. An arpeggio guitar opening, the rhythm sped up, a louder sound, and that minor key provides an emotional wallop for this warning song.
Numerous covers followed, including a beautiful version of “Amazing Grace”, sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The song endures for its melody as well as for its lyrics. This was a warning song, a universal song, “not to do what I have done.” The small towns in Kentucky may have heard of the sinful ways of New Orleans and would spread the message with these songs to avoid the brothels, the drink, and the broken marriages that would reverberate with visits to the Crescent City.
“House of the Rising Sun” is one of the most covered songs, traveling wide and far, no longer with the need for a medicine show. It was a pivotal moment in rock ‘n roll, turning folk music into rock music. The Animals became huge because of this song, and their version became the standard on which all subsequent covers based their version. It made Bob Dylan’s older version seem quaint.
The song has been in my head for a while now. My wife is hoping writing about it will keep it from being played in our household any more. There are various reasons it has been resonating with me, including the following: