Old Song, Story of Modern Culture, Part 2

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In the early 1940s, the New York folk scene was incubating as musicians black and white gathered at each other’s apartments to share songs.

Most of them, more than being musicians, were popularizers. Though Woody Guthrie came straight from small-town Oklahoma, his strength was as a showman, bringing white regional experience — via his own songs and others’ — into a radio and phonograph world. Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, a former prisoner from Louisiana, and Josh White, who grew up touring with black musicians in the 1920s, were helping to make “race music” more mainstream.

Into this mix, Lomax brought “The Rising Sun Blues.” Some might have already heard of it distantly, but he deposited it onto their musical doorstep.

White, especially, took to the song. His intense, minor-key version, with the first melody that resembles the one familiar today, introduced a black bluesman’s sensibility that entranced an audience different from Guthrie’s. (Though Lomax said he taught White the arrangement, White later said he learned it from a “white hillbilly” in North Carolina.)

Roots music was popping up everywhere. Lead Belly sent “Goodnight, Irene” on its way. Aaron Copland adapted fiddler W.H. Stepp’s version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Seeger, with his new group, the Weavers, turned to Africa for the melodic “Wimoweh,” which became the foundation for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

So it was with “Rising Sun,” which, with the Weavers’ help, became a standard during the folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s. Clarence Ashley, meanwhile, was still singing his old-timey version and teaching it to guitar picker Doc Watson. Each musician brought a new interpretation, a new sensibility.

Then, in 1961, a skinny 20-year-old Woody Guthrie fan from Minnesota took a turn with the song. His musician friend Dave Van Ronk had arranged a haunting version, and the singer decided “House of the Risin’ Sun” would be a memorable part of his debut album.

It turned out Bob Dylan was right.

A Hit Brewing in England

Across the Atlantic, in the coal town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, an electrical worker’s son named Eric Burdon had immersed himself in blues and folk. He especially liked a local singer named Johnny Handel, who sang of shipwrecks and local mining disasters and favored a tune making the rounds called “House of the Rising Sun.”

As Burdon’s fledgling musical group, the Animals, came together, he and bandmate Alan Price heard others singing it; Dylan and Josh White made deep impressions. So in 1964, when Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis came to Britain on tour and the Animals wanted in, the song seemed an ideal solution.

“I realized one thing: You can’t out-rock Chuck Berry,” says Burdon, playing air guitar as he reminisces in New Orleans, which he visits frequently. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we take this song, reorganize it, drop some of Dylan’s lyrics and get Alan Price to rearrange it?’”

Through musicians like Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, the music of the folk revival had begun to be a real force in pop and rock. And the Animals were more than willing to participate.

Their version began with Hilton Valentine’s now-famous guitar riff. Then Burdon’s ragged voice began spitting out lyrics almost resentfully before the organ music kicked in. It was a throbbing, uniquely 1960s anthem.

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