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Sunday, October 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`House of the Rising Sun': An old song with a long story

The Associated Press

MIDDLESBORO, Ky. - She'd sing it wherever she went in those days - around the neighborhood, hanging the wash outside her family's wooden shack, and especially when folks would gather to play some harmonica, pick some banjo and push the blues away.

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 young man from the East showed up, trolling Kentucky's mountains with a bulky contraption to record people singing their songs. Georgia - just 16 - 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.

Lomax put it into a songbook, and it spread like a cold into the 1940s New York City folk-music scene - to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, to Lead Belly, to Josh White, who may have known it already. Each put it on a phonograph record and passed it to thousands more.

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 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. You get it, preprogrammed, when you buy a Casio electronic keyboard at Target.

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."

Origins are murky

"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" - aka "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 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. 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.

What did he ask Georgia Turner to sing that day? Her favorite song? The saddest? Lomax didn't say, and now it may be too late: At 85, he is incapacitated by a stroke.

In 1941, Lomax 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. Musicians black and white gathered at each other's apartments to share songs, then went forth and sang them to New York audiences hungry for American authenticity.

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.

Into this mix, Lomax brought "The Rising Sun Blues."

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.

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.

"You bounce a song off an experience of life the way a basketball bounces against a backboard," Pete Seeger says. "Think of the young girls who sang it, the mothers who sang it, the cynical piano players. It gets new meanings as different people sing it."

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.

Enter the Animals

Across the Atlantic, in the coal town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, an electrical worker's son named Eric Burdon had immersed himself in blues and folk. He especially liked a local singer named Johnny Handel, who sang of ship wrecks and local mining disasters and favored a tune making the rounds called "House of the Rising Sun."

As Burdon's fledgling musical group, the Animals, came together, he and bandmate 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. "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. 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."

Today, music is faster than people. We drive and fly, but songs can soar; their wings are airwaves and Virgin Megastores and MP3 files. The very innovations that once threatened local music have carried it to the planet's farthest reaches.

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.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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