“The House of the Rising Sun” predates New Orleans, it begins with 16th century bawdy houses fatal to young men

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Undoubtedly, “The House of the Rising Sun” is one of the most famous songs ever written. It became popular thanks to the British rock band the Animals, but before that happened, there is a huge story-line to be tackled.

Originally a traditional folk song, “The House of the Rising Sun,” also known as “Rising Sun Blues,” tells of life in New Orleans, back in the day when poverty was the fate of many people. Like the majority of classic folk ballads, the authorship of “The House of the Rising Sun” is tricky and uncertain.

Musicologists say that it is certainly based on the broadside ballad tradition; a type of ballad which differentiated from traditional ones. They were popular between the 16th and the 19th century and unlike the traditional ballads, which were more epic in nature, they spoke of love, religion, legends, and wonders, and some were even drinking songs. The ‘broadsheet’ contained the lyrics of the song, along with the name of some popular tune that would match with the lyrics.

In the case of “The House of the Rising Sun,” the theory is it resembles “The Unfortunate Rake,” a 16th-century folk song which over time has evolved into a huge number of variants. The earliest known variant of “The Unfortunate Rake” laments over a young man dying of syphilis. Other variants lament over the fate of young soldiers, sailors, cowboys, or maids, all of whom had lost their life too early.

According to Alan Lomax, a distinguished American collector of folk songs of the 20th century, “Rising Sun” was used as the name of a bawdy house in two traditional English songs, as well being used for pub names across England. He also suggested that the ‘location of the house’ changed from England to New Orleans by white southern performers.

Other sources suggest that the “Rising Sun” originated from France, and referred to a decorative use of sunburst insignia dating all the way back to Louis XIV; it could have been brought to North America by French immigrants.

There are also further unconfirmed implications of “The Rising Sun” being related to other folk songs, one of which, is the folk song “Matty Groves”.

One thing is clear, that the original “The House of the Rising Sun” is older than New Orleans itself, as the city was founded in 1718. Its lyrics were also varying and different than the one we are familiar with today.

The oldest published version of the lyrics is printed by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925, in the Adventure Magazine, where Gordon ran a folk music column, ‘Old Songs Men Have Sung’; the magazine collected information on traditional American music from magazine’s readers. The lyrics of that version are as follows:

There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun,
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl,
Great God, and I for one

During the 1930’s, the first recordings of the song started to appear. The earliest known recording was released by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster. Their title was “Rising Sun Blues”.

On a further note, Alan Lomax, along with his father, curated the Archive of American Folk Songs for the Library of Congress. As part of their job, they worked on the field and were able to record a number of performances of the legendary song. In 1937, Alan produced a recording by the American folk singer, Georgia Turner. Her version of the song, entitled “The Rising Sun Blues” became the standard. This was the ancestor of hundreds of covers that were later on released by numerous performers, included Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and of the course The Animals, who first helped the song become a worldwide hit.

The Animals version made the folk song a number one hit in the UK, France, and the USA. As it was a traditional song recorded by an electric rock band for the first time, music critics regarded it as the “first folk-rock hit”. The American music critic and radio talk show host Dave Marsh would comment that the version by The Animals was “as if they’d connected the ancient tune to a live wire”.

BBC writer Ralph McLean would also note on the 1964 release that is had been “a revolutionary single” after which “the face of modern music was changed forever”.

 Stefan Andrews

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Jazz, blues and gumbo in the Deep South

The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music
The French Quarter in New Orleans is brimming with antique buildings and music   GETTY IMAGES

‘So can we go upstairs?” An overworked guide gives me a weary look. “Nobody goes upstairs, nobody but family.” My grown-up daughter and I are on the porch of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of a road trip through the Deep South that has brought us to the second most visited house in America.

I know from the books that above us is the “death bathroom” where a heart attack felled Elvis Presley, supposedly as he read A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus on the loo. With no chance of inappropriate selfies, we settled into our basic $43.75 tour.

The first striking fact is that, unlike everything else in America, Graceland is smaller than you expect: a solid suburban home gussied up by a portico with four Corinthian columns. The second surprise is that for all the green shag carpeting on ceilings, the white settees, the faux fur upholstery and the indoor waterfall, the interior is really rather intimate and homely. You can see why Elvis loved the place.

Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died
Visitors to Graceland are forbidden from seeing the bathroom where Elvis died   MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Long before reaching Presley’s doorstep, music and food had become the twin Corinthian pillars of our trip from Louisiana up Highway 61, the old “blues highway” through Mississippi. The adventure had begun, as many do, in New Orleans, specifically on that garish slash of neon, Bourbon Street, which cuts through the picturesque and otherwise charming French Quarter. Just off the plane, we went to the Desire Oyster Bar for our Welcome to Louisiana meal. Its no-nonsense menu was not for the weak-stomached: firecracker oysters, fried alligator (like chicken but saltier) and gumbo (southern stew). When a towering plate of shrimp and grits (similar to polenta) and a case of over-ambitious ordering defeated me, Kentrell, the oyster man, told me about the diner who downed nine orders of a dozen oysters. Yes, but that probably wasn’t at 3am UK time.

The next day we ventured farther into the French Quarter. In the balmy sun, surrounded by colourful, flower-bedecked antique buildings, you would have to try hard not to have a good time. Music was, of course, everywhere — a funky brass band, country blues buskers. Yes, this is tourist land but the standard was high, save for a lone trumpeter in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi who seemed to slip into Baa, Baa, Black Sheep every time inspiration flagged. Even the living statues were a cut above, though the one we admired most, an eccentric figure in Canal Street, turned out, in fact, to be just a statue.

The restaurants too have their surprises. At ancient Napoleon House they showed us the upstairs chambers supposedly prepared for Bonaparte’s exile (never used after he died in St Helena). Above Arnaud’s Jazz Bistro there is a museum showing the costumes worn by the founder’s daughter at Mardi Gras balls. We inspected rows of ghostly mannequins clad as a mix of Disney princesses and Marie Antoinette.

John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61
John Bungey takes a break from Highway 61

By now, however, the road was calling — Highway 61, the legendary road as revisited by Bob Dylan. At first, however, the journey was dull unless you are a fan of swamp and low-budget ribbon development. However, excitement grew as it began to rain — and rain. By the time we reached picturesque Natchez, tornado warnings were gusting all over cable TV. Our hotel, the Grand, sat on a bluff high over the Mississippi, which was not, as in the Paul Simon song, “shining like a National guitar”. Instead Ol’ Man River brooded grey and ominous.

Natchez is known for the glories of its plantation houses — not so glorious if you were one of the four million slaves in the South labouring amid the cotton and sugar cane. The most spectacular residence we saw was Longwood, a six-storey mansion designed in Moorish style that comes with a poignant backstory. Only the basement was fitted out internally when the Civil War broke out and the northern builders fled. Its owner then died and his wife, reduced to penury, lived on with the children in the basement — as did their descendants for 100 years — never having the money to complete the interiors. The grand and ghostly upper floors are now a favourite for vampire movie-makers.

On we drove, the road taking us past more swamp and shacks and what looked in places like picturesque poverty, but real poverty nonetheless. We stopped at little Greenwood where the Alluvian was a fine boutique hotel, much-loved by weekending Americans. However, the rest of this little cotton city was a puzzle. For all its period buildings, the centre has been “hollowed out” by suburban growth. Trying to walk to a shop where you could buy, say, a banana or even (mad idea) a newspaper proved impossible. Instead we took the car to the Museum of the Mississippi Delta where they had the skeleton of a local mastodon, a re-creation of a swamp, and made a game attempt at explaining the convulsions of the Civil War and the bitter civil rights struggle in these parts.

Next came blues day. We drove out of town to the rustic little Zion Missionary Church to pay our respects at what may be the grave of the commercially insignificant but hugely influential bluesman Robert Johnson. There are two other alleged burial sites to choose from. Our route then took us past the crossroads where Johnson is said to have met the Devil to sell his soul in return for supernatural musical powers. Today Beelzebub would be crushed by the 18-wheelers trundling past before he could make the deal.

Halfway to Memphis we stopped at Clarksdale, touted as the birthplace of blues music. At the Delta Museum they were handing out fairy cakes to mark the birthday of Muddy Waters. The Ground Zero club is one part tourist trap, one part blues cliché and one part a very good time. We sipped root beer and listened to some righteous guitaring.

In Memphis we arrived at the new Napoleon Hotel, which pulls off the trick of being homely and hip. We told the valet we wanted to visit Sun Studio, cradle of early rock’n’roll. He pointed down the street. But it was one of those American urban forays via crumbling or non-existent sidewalks and past wandering lost souls that proved impossible for us. So we retreated and caught a bus. Sun Studio is small and airless, bedecked with pictures of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and sundry lost legends. At one end is a drum kit left behind when U2 rattled and hummed here in 1987; at the other end our guide, Nina, unveiled an ancient Shure 55 mike that Elvis may or may not have sung into. “Do not kiss it or lick it,” she implored, as the holy relic was passed round.

Downtown Memphis was smart and shiny, the rest was not. We ate a decent plate of gumbo in Beale Street, the music quarter, which is heavily touristy. But the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, is hugely moving. King’s bedroom is preserved as on the day of his death. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, celebrating the mighty local label, was also $13 well spent.

After our Graceland foray, it was a six-hour straight drive down the Interstate 55 for another brief taste of New Orleans. At a final brunch at Commander’s Palace, I drank a potent local Sazerac cocktail, then another, and not surprisingly fell asleep on the plane home. I had a dream that I was back in Graceland and the reincarnated Elvis himself was showing me round upstairs. Yet as we reached his inner sanctum he morphed into an air stewardess who was telling me to buckle up for landing. Some things in the Deep South will for ever remain a deep mystery.