Old Song, Story of Modern Culture, Part 1

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—>

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