House of the rising sun

Was there really a house of ill repute in New Orleans called the “House of the Rising Sun”? Although this question has vexed musicologists, arm-chair historians and others for many years, no definite proof has ever been offered for anything of the kind. The closest match was a New Orleans prison for women that had an etching of a rising sun on the gate. Now hold on, the arm-chairs might argue, there was a coffee shop in New Orleans in the 1860s by that name and it served alcohol as well. That may be, the realists would counter, but it did not sell sex nor did it employ Japanese waitresses (Rising Sun is an alternative expression for Japan).

Long before Eric Burdon and the Animals made the song into a number one hit in the United States, England and France in 1964, the references to a house in New Orleans that corrupted youth had been the theme of many folk songs dating back to at least the early part of the 20th century. Some say the lyrics (warnings from parents to their children to avoid such places) date back even further to British folk songs of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Animals’ success with recording “House of the Rising Sun” may have been the reason Bob Dylan went electric, some people say, thus turning away from acoustic folk protest songs and turning more to rock. Burdon said so himself: “I’ve been told by lots of people who know, and were around at the time, that that’s what stimulated Bob into going electric, and becoming a rock star as opposed to a folk star. You might say we’re all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realized that that was the road that we wanted to take.” (somethingelsereviews.com)

Few realize that a house in New Orleans was mentioned in a Blues song by a Black Texas-born singer back in 1928. “New Orleans Blues” was recorded by a Blues singer from Jewett, Texas named Alger “Texas” Alexander (1900–54), a cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins. His lyrics, however, were completely different from Eric Burdon’s later version.

“My woman got somethin’ just like the rising sun
My woman got somethin’ like the rising sun
You can never tell when that work is done

It’s no use to worryin’ ‘bout the days bein’ long
It’s no use to worryin’ ‘bout the days bein’ long
Neither worries ‘bout your rollin’ because it sure goin’ on

She got somethin’ round and it look like a bat
She got somethin’ round and it look just like a bat
Some time I wonder, ‘What in the hell is that?’

Alexander did not play a musical instrument. The Texas Blues Tribute website explains that Alger was “a short man with a big, deep voice. He started his career performing on the streets and at parties and picnics in the Brazos River bottomlands, where he sometimes worked with Blind Lemon Jefferson. In 1927, he began a recording career that continued into the 1930s, recording sides for Okeh Records and Vocalion Records in New York, San Antonio, and Fort Worth.” Alexander was charged with murdering his wife in 1939 and was imprisoned in the state penitentiary in Paris, Texas, from 1940 to 1945. He died of syphilis in 1954, at the age of 53.

Burdon and the Animals were British and were recording amid a rediscovery of Blues music in England that was being transported back to the United States in the “British Invasion” of the 1960s. Alexander did not benefit from any such tailwind of popularity. As a traditional folk song recorded by an electric rock band, Burdon’s version had such wide-sweeping influence that it has been described as the “first folk rock hit.” Others may label the song as the “first blues rock hit.” 

Dozens of artists have recorded the song in the wake of the Animals’ smash hit. For instance, versions of the song were later recorded by such artists as Bob Dylan, Jody Miller, Dolly Parton, Thin Lizzy, Geordie and Five Finger Death Punch. Johnny Hallyday recorded a French version while the Colombian band Los Speakers came up with a Spanish interpretation. A particularly haunting pan-pipe version was recorded by the Peruvian group Razandina.

Perhaps the real question is whether songs such as this can make a historical statement or not, even if they are not factual. There is little doubt that millions of worldwide listeners heard this song and believed there really is, or was, a whorehouse in the Crescent City by that name.

Perhaps Robert Palmer’s justly celebrated question at the end of his book Deep Blues says it all: “How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” And sometimes, lyrics are just lyrics.

“House of the Rising Sun” by Eric Burdon and the Animals

 

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