Old Song, Story of Modern Culture, Part 1

She’d sing it wherever she went in those days — around the neighborhood, hanging the wash outside her family’s wooden shack, and especially when folks would gather to play some harmonica, pick some banjo and push the blues away.

Everyone knew the song was old, though they weren’t sure where it came from. But in 1937, around Middlesboro’s desperately poor Noetown section, it came from the mouth of the miner’s daughter who lived by the railroad tracks, the girl named Georgia Turner.

One day, a man showed up from the East, a young guy in an old car trolling Kentucky’s mountains with a bulky contraption to record people singing their songs. Georgia — blond, pretty, just 16 — gathered up her mother and headed over to Tillman Cadle’s house. In a nasal drawl she performed her favorite, the twangy lament called “Rising Sun Blues.”

That day, Georgia Turner made her contribution to musical history.

Until she sang into Alan Lomax’s Presto “reproducer,” her beloved tune belonged primarily to the American folk tradition: staunchly regional, shifting as it was passed from this front porch to that one, rarely committed to writing.

On Sept. 15, 1937, it stepped into 20th century popular culture.

Sounds of the Century

Lomax put it into a songbook, and it spread like a cold into the 1940s New York City folk music scene. To Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, to Lead Belly, to Josh White, who may have known it already. Each put it on a phonograph record and passed it to thousands more.

With each year the ripples widened — into the folk revival and beyond, to a British Invasion band called the Animals that arranged the breakthrough version, “The Hit,” the one you hear in your head when you think of the song.

From there, as years passed, it crossed genres and oceans: Celtic and Latin, reggae and disco, trance and punk and easy listening. It has become a melody for a hip-hop artist’s Haitian lyrics.

One American tune of many, up from the folkways, onto the highways and beyond — propelled by technology and globalization and the desire to make two things: money and a difference. It is the story of modern mass culture, of taking something old, adding something personal and creating something universal.

It’s the story of the song called “House of the Rising Sun.”

‘First One I Ever Heard’

“Georgie, she’s the first one I ever heard sing it,” says Ed Hunter, who played harmonica at that 1937 session in Middlesboro. Still sure-footed at 78, he has outlived her by three decades and lives 200 yards from where her family’s home once stood. “Where she got it, I don’t know,” he says. “There weren’t many visitors, and she didn’t go nowhere.”

Middlesboro then was even more isolated than today, nearly 50 miles of winding roads from the nearest interstate highway. Tucked into rugged mountains just west of the Cumberland Gap, where thousands came west in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was laid out by English iron-ore speculators. But even before that, mountaineers of English, Scots and Irish stock, including some Turners, built lives in the hills and, in their isolation, preserved a rich tradition of music and balladry.

Out of this, it seems, “Rising Sun Blues” — aka “House in New Orleans” or even “Rising Sun Dance Hall” — bubbled up.

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