The Story Behind “The House of the Rising Sun”
I: That girl from Kaintuck
“Georgia, hurry up! He’s at Cadle’s!”
“Okay, mama,” Georgia Turner answers, wiping her hands on a dish cloth. The sixteen-year-old’s birthday is today, September 15, 1937. She and her mother walk out of the log house onto the dirt street of Noetown, a poor shanty neighborhood of Middlesboro, Kentucky.
They’re going to go sing at Tillman Cadle’s house. A man has come down from Washington, D.C. to hear the old music. Mary Gill Turner is known in the neighborhood for her religious songs. The blond-haired Georgia, who always seems to be singing, likes ballads and the blues best.
They pass a muddy Studebaker as they approach the Cadle home. Automobiles are still a rare enough sight in Noetown that Georgia pauses for a moment to look inside. She’s never ridden in a car.
The two join the crowd, centered around a young man, not that much older than Georgia. But he’s treated with deference, as much for being the master of the bulky piece of machinery he’s working over as anything else.
Alan Lomax’s Presto disc recorder had been supplied by The Library of Congress for his first solo field recording expedition. The Presto was billed as a portable model, but at 350 pounds was “portable” only in a copywriter’s imagination, handle or not. Lomax traveled with the machine in the back of his Studebaker. In order to record in places where there was no electricity, like Noetown, Lomax used the Studebaker’s battery, which he attached to a transformer, which in turn was attached to an amplifier. Lomax was finishing the last connection from amplifier to Presto when Georgia and her mother walked in.
Mary Gill sang a few songs into Lomax’s machine, and then it was Georgia’s turn. Lomax lifted another of the massive, black, glass platters onto the machine and beckoned Georgia over. She began with an old standard, Married Life Blues. Then she leaned into Lomax’s microphone and began another song, first tentatively, then more strongly, as the sadness of the story seemed to take over her voice.
There is a house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun.
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
and me, oh God for one.
II: On to New York and Over the Pond
Georgia Turner’s The House of the Rising Sun, which she called Rising Sun Blues, wasn’t the first recording of the song; that’s probably Clarence Ashley’s of 19 and 33, nor the most famous — we’ll talk about that one a little later on. But it’s the one that inspired most of the later folk renditions of House of the Rising Sun, as well as the Animal’s ground-breaking folk-rock version that reportedly caused Bob Dylan to jump out of his car in excitement when he first heard it on the radio.
No one knows where Turner first heard the song. Her home in Noetown didn’t have electricity, let alone a radio or phonograph, so it’s unlikely that she had heard one of the recorded versions. Ted Anthony, in his brilliant book tracking the song, Chasing the Rising Sun, speculates that Georgia may have heard the song direct from Clarence Ashley’s lips as he performed it on the medicine show circuit. There’s some evidence to back that theory. The song was obviously known in the area and being passed from singer to singer. Three weeks after meeting Georgia Turner, Lomax would be fifty miles north of Noetown and recording a man named Bert Martin, who sang a slightly different version of Rising Sun. Lomax would use Martin’s extra lyrics to fill out Georgia Turner’s version and credit her with the song in his collection, “Our Singing Country,” which was published in 1941.
By the late `50s, the song was already a folk standard, having been added to the portfolios of Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Josh White, and Pete Seeger, among many others. In 1957 the music, guitar chords, and lyrics were published in Sing Out!, a folk music `zine with an influence far beyond its raw production values. Sing Out! was one of the primary sources for the booming folkie revival of the late `50s and early `60s. If you couldn’t lay your hands on an original of the magazine, you’d likely have a mimeograph copy of the song sheets to learn the music for your next coffee house gig or hootenanny.
With changed chords and a descending bass line, Rising Sun became one of Greenwich Village folk icon Dave Van Ronk’s signature pieces during the early `60s, impressing the young Bob Dylan so much that he recorded his own take on the Van Ronk version for his first album, “Bob Dylan”. Unfortunately Dylan waited until after the fact before asking Van Ronk’s permission, and Van Ronk had had plans to record the song himself. And even more unfortunately, Rising Sun became so closely associated with Dylan in the folk community that Van Ronk had to stop singing the song or listen to snide remarks that it was a pretty good cover but much too close to Dylan’s version.
“Now that was very, very annoying,” Van Ronk noted, with just a trace of irony. But Van Ronk would see Dylan himself forced to stop playing the song after the Animals’ 1964 mega-hit became the definitive version — an electric rendition based on Dylan’s cover of Van Ronk… or was that Georgia Turner… or Clarence Ashley?
III: Another Shot Fired in the British Invasion
About two years after the Animals’ release of Rising Sun, I was in my freshman year at a boarding school. One of my dorm mates had taken up the electric guitar, and the first piece of music he learned was the famous seven-note, A-minor chord arpeggio that begins House of the Rising Sun. For a good part of that year, our adult dorm master was treated nightly to an unlikely chorus of seven 14-year-olds soulfully lamenting their misfortune in visiting that house in New Orleans.
There are various stories about where the idea came from — sources claim the Animals decided to record Rising Sun after hearing either Dylan’s, or Josh White’s, or Nina Simone’s versions — but the band knew it needed a memorable signature song for a spring 1964 tour where they would be on the same bill as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. They wanted something that would separate them from the pack and make the audience remember them. Something different, because, as Eric Burdon puts it, “You can’t out-rock Chuck Berry.”
Someone in the band — maybe Eric Burdon, maybe Alan Price, depending on whose story you want to believe — suggested Rising Sun and someone — maybe Alan Price again, if you believe him, maybe the band as a whole — developed the unforgettable electric arrangement.
The Animals joined the Berry-Lewis tour and, in their first night on-stage, closed the first half of the show with their first public performance of The House of the Rising Sun. It was one of those moments that performers dream about but seldom really experience. As the final notes of the song ebbed away and the sole spotlight on Burdon faded into darkness, the audience was silent. Then the applause started, and didn’t stop.
The Animals recorded the song on May 18, 1964, under the supervision of an unenthusiastic Columbia label producer, who felt that a four-and-a-half minute single was about a minute-and-a-half too long to have any chance to make it to the charts. He was — of course — dead wrong. The House of the Rising Sun would become a trans-Atlantic chart-buster, topping both the U.K. pop singles chart in July of 1964 and the U.S. pop singles chart in September, when it became the first British Invasion #1 hit that wasn’t a Beatles tune.
Unfortunately, Rising Sun would generate ill feelings among the Animals that would eventually break up the group and rankle the ex-members to this day. Again, someone — the record is unclear but most fingers point to the group’s then-manager — told the band that they couldn’t all be credited on the 45 single and suggested they just use organist Alan Price’s name alone and sort out the royalty percentages later. It didn’t occur to the financially naive musicians until after the fact that they could have used “Trad. Arr: The Animals,” but the single was released as “Trad. Arr: Alan Price.”
Alan Price’s official web site notes, “…Price’s hypnotic arrangement of the band’s epic version of The House of the Rising Sun was released in June 1964 and went on to become a worldwide smash…” Eric Burdon acknowledges that Price played a major role in the arrangement’s development, but claims that it was a group effort. Less than a year after Rising Sun hit the charts, Alan Price had left The Animals. Some members of the group suspected he left because he had enough money coming in from Rising Sun to strike out on his own.
The other band members never saw a penny from the publishing royalties. But Rising Sun was never a song to reward its various interpreters very well… at least not with money. Clarence Ashley was probably paid $25 and transportation for his recorded version. Alan Lomax spent a great deal time and effort tracking down Georgia Turner in the early `60s so he could offer her royalties from her 1937 recording. But all in all she received less than $1,000.
It’s a hard-luck song.
Further Reading/Listening: This article was inspired by Ted Anthony’s 2007 book Chasing the Rising Sun, Anthony’s journey into the heart of that song, as well as into the heart of America itself. I highly recommend it. I should note that, while based on Anthony’s report, my description of the meeting between Alan Lomax and Georgia Turner is a pure product of my imagination, and any errors are mine alone.
Georgia Turner’s version of House of the Rising Sun (Rising Sun Blues) can be found on Alan Lomax’s Popular Songbook The CD also contains Stagolee, Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby (later popularized in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and the original Sloop John B. Popular Songbook is a very good starting point for anyone wanting to explore more of the place I spend much of my time, at least in my imagination, the Old Weird America.