Saturday, February 7, 2009

Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song

What is a life? A journey, perhaps? And what if it's the life of a song? What is it then? Is it the same as a person's life, where it touches other people's lives, blessing some, damning others, as it rollicks down its own path, either towards its own fate or random ending?

Ted Anthony makes a pretty fair argument that it's the latter as he traces the song, House of the Rising Sun from its roots in what he calls The Village, a fictional place in what Anthony calls the Golden Triangle, a place in the hills where Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee all come together.

From The Village where a sixteen-year old Georgia Turner was first recorded singing it by Alan Lomax, employed by the Library of Congress in 1937 to collect samplings of folk music, to karaoke bars in Thailand, Anthony follows the life of this song of warning and despair--the reason, he postulates, that gives it such universal appeal.

Known originally as The Rising Sun Blues, the song started out as a story about a young girl and a warning to her younger sister, and it was sung in a major key. Over the years, different performers, some prominent, others just back-country hillbillies in Appalachia and as far away as the Ozarks, put their individual mark on the song, rewriting lyrics, swapping stanzas. Ultimately, we all know the Animals' version, sung in a minor key about a young man's life gone to hell from the decadence in a house of ill-repute in New Orleans. Little tidbits of information are almost on every page. The word "house" was kept out of the title most over pretty much the course of the song's life, because of the subconscious knee-jerk jump we'd have of putting the word, "whore" in front of the word "house".

The two most notable characters in the story, Turner and the Animals' Eric Burden, barely profited, if at all, from the song that played such an important part of their lives. Turner, late in a life that turned to drinking, finally did start to receive small royalty checks for the song that bears her name. Burden, who sang the arrangement that is most popular today, didn't receive a cent.

Anthony, twice nominated for the Pulitzer, is thorough if not a bit clinical. With a reporter's nose, he ferrets out stories and people from all over the globe, following even the smallest lead, but the account is fascinating; the song in all its iterations--from front porch performances in Appalachia to Muzak in elevators--has probably been heard by just about everyone in the modern world, and so you or I could have been fodder for this account. If it all sounds mundane, then think about the first time you ever heard the song, or how you feel right now when you think of the melody, and that's the essence of the book.

Following the song is following a part of American culture that, for some of us, is a deep and longing part of our past. I grew up in that world of country folks, or at least the tail end of it, and even as a youngster I knew it was a world that was rapidly being overtaken by the modern world, like a horse and buggy being overtaken by a Greyhound bus on country road. When the generation comprising my aunts and uncles died out, I knew a way of life would fade from the world. What's funny is to see, through following Anthony's narrative, how that world was melded into today's world. Bastardized, perhaps, but the remnants are there, and that's just the way of the world.

Just to give you a taste of how far afield the song has gone.

Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley:

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