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.

It probably started as a bowdlerization of British folk songs. Its melody, Lomax wrote, resembled one arrangement of “Matty Groves,” an English ballad dating to the 1600s. In Britain, the term “Rising Sun” has long been a euphemism for bordello; in 1953, aging English folk singer Harry Cox sung for Lomax a profane old song called “She Was a Rum One.” Its opening: “If you go to Lowestoft, and ask for the Rising Sun, there you’ll find two old whores, and my old woman’s one.”

In America, “House of the Rising Sun” has always been more lament than dirty ditty. Various accounts have it kicking around the South since the Civil War, a cautionary tale for those who’d stray. Sometimes, when it came from a man’s mouth, it was a gambler’s song. More often, it was a woman’s warning to shun that house in New Orleans that’s “been the ruin of many a poor girl.”

A few other musicians from the region were singing it between the world wars. Clarence Ashley, born three mountains over from Middlesboro in Bristol, Tenn., sang it as a rounder’s lament. The song, he said shortly before his death in 1967, was “too old for me to talk about. I got it from some of my grandpeople.” And a Library of Congress correspondent, in a handwritten version submitted in 1925, said he learned it “from a southerner … of the type that generally call themselves ‘one o’th’ boys.’”

So it was out there. Ashley, who said he taught it to Roy Acuff, may have recorded it in the 1920s, and the Library of Congress cites (but does not have) a couple of 78-rpm records that apparently date from before Georgia Turner sang it in 1937.

Sounds of the People

The world then was convulsing with innovation. Just as offset printing brought sheet music to the masses in the 1800s, now the revolution of records and radio was making the sound itself portable.

Enter Alan Lomax, who learned music-collecting from his father, John, a folk-song gatherer since Theodore Roosevelt’s time. The Lomaxes believed technology was threatening local music, introducing homogenization that could overrun regional expression. Even so, by the mid-1930s, the son was using that very technology to capture people singing songs ladled from the stew of regional experience.

“It put neglected cultures and silenced people into the communications chain,” Alan Lomax said years later.

The Library of Congress sent him out to record those neglected cultures. And in September 1937, his journeys took him to the hills of Eastern Kentucky.

What did he ask Georgia Turner to sing that day? Her favorite song? The saddest? Lomax didn’t say, and now it may be too late: At 85, he is incapacitated by stroke.

In the weeks after Lomax recorded her, two other Kentucky musicians, both men from two counties north, sang versions of “Rising Sun Blues” into his Presto. Bert Martin in Horse Creek accompanied himself on guitar; Daw Henson up in Billys Branch sang a capella. And though Lomax did credit Martin for “other stanzas,” it was Georgia Turner’s version, the only one with the verse that starts, “My mother she’s a tailor,” that he remembered best.

So Lomax gave her version a bit of immortality: In 1941, he included it in a songbook called “Our Singing Country.”

More important, he told his friends about it. And these weren’t just any friends.

Continued: Back-Country Tune Hits the Big Time—>