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Surging with idealism, 22-year-old archivist Alan Lomax set off on his 1937 tour of Kentucky with high hopes. His aim was to find songs. Not new songs, but the so-called “floating” songs that resounded all over America, entertaining crowds at medicine shows, keeping rhythm for the workers of the railroad.
Funded with a grant from the Library of Congress, he aspired to capture the “democratic, interracial, international character” of America’s folk tradition. He wanted to codify and classify the inchoate soundtrack of the country’s daily rituals. Some were more wholesome than others. In the mining town of Middlesboro, he came across 16-year-old Georgia Turner. She sang him a minute-and-a-half of a sliding blues song that described the wicked allure of a devilish institution down in Louisiana: “There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun/ It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, O God, for one.”
Lomax included the charismatic performance in his 1941 collection Our Singing Country. He learnt of another recording of “Rising Sun Blues”, made in 1933 by the Appalachian duo Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster. Here was a true floating song, a morality tale, some speculated, imported from England, resembling folk ballads such as “Matty Groves” and “The Unfortunate Rake”.
Whatever its provenance, the song enthralled a generation of artists. Woody Guthrie recorded a version in 1941. Josh White tweaked the lyrics in his 1947 effort, and Lead Belly made two stabs at the song in the same decade. And then, another generation joined in: the peacenik troubadours, Pete Seeger in 1958, and Joan Baez in 1960.
Back in New Orleans, the search was on for the “Rising Sun”. Was it a bar, a brothel, a boarding house? There was no definitive answer, but plenty of plausible theories. It was a house of ill repute run by a Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (get it?) in St Louis Street; no, it was a hotel for “discerning gentlemen”, as a local newspaper ad described, in Conti Street.
The thicker the mystery became, the greater the song’s appeal. Bob Dylan included it on his first, eponymous, album in 1962. His arrangement was copied from Dave Van Ronk, the singer-songwriter claimed. But the song was free-floating now, impervious to ownership claims. In the same year, Nina Simone recorded her first version, a perfect confluence of her own intensity and the song’s portentous moralism.
Then the British, like true rebuffed colonialists, got in on the act. The Animals’ 1964 version of “The House of the Rising Sun” was a sensation. Singer Eric Burdon had heard the song in a Newcastle club, and the group responded with an electric (and electrifying) arrangement. Its arpeggio guitar introduction and Alan Price’s frantic organ solo remain forever associated with the song. It was released as a single, despite a then-inordinate length of four minutes 29 seconds. Producer Mickie Most conquered his own initial misgivings. “We’re in a microgroove world now,” he explained to all those remonstrating dust bowl hobos.
The floating song had travelled a long way. Watch its mutation on the original Animals video: the group wear absurd “Beatles” suits as they circle their way around the drum kit in single file. They look like the kind of nice boys who would not have made it past the entrance of the Rising Sun.
Laugh as you like: this, more than the triumphant opening salvo of the early Beatles’ singles, really did mark the British invasion of American popular culture. Lomax had been right. The tradition of American folk music deserved a higher place in the pantheon of art, and would one day help conquer the world.
For more in this series, and for podcasts with clips of the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song