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.

The band joined the tour and ended the song with a lone red light bathing Burdon. The audience went nuts, and the Animals went straight to the recording studio. Their electric version of Georgia Turner’s favorite song swept across the radio waves. On Sept. 5, 1964, “The House of the Rising Sun” displaced The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” to become Billboard’s No. 1.

Jazz, Punk, and German Tango

From there it went everywhere.

Through the decades, artist after artist claimed it and reshaped it: Disco. Country rock. Jazz. Punk. Cajun. Elevator music. Even German tango and harmonica renditions. A band called Frijid Pink recorded a version that a young serviceman named Gillis Turner grew to love while serving in Vietnam, and had no idea it was connected to his Aunt Georgia.

“I think that everybody who’s had a bad day can relate to that song,” he says.

It was even appropriated into hip-hop, a genre that relies upon the reinterpretation of music that came before. When Wyclef Jean used the melody of “House of the Rising Sun” and added Haitian lyrics, Georgia Turner’s old song was enlisted once again — to lament racism and police brutality in New York City in 1998.

“When you delve into it, you realize how pervasive traditional songs are in our culture,” says Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. “They’re so much a part of us, but we don’t even recognize it.”

Voices from the Past

Sunday churchgoers are finishing lunch as a friendly 59-year-old named Reno Taylor sits in a diner in Monroe, Mich., a pugnacious Detroit satellite town. He is discussing his mother, Georgia Turner, who died of emphysema in 1969 after 48 years of life.

He remembers her talking of hard times down in Kentucky and how they coped. “They sang,” he says, “and they drank.”

But her eldest son has not come only to reminisce; he has come to hear his mother sing.

Her voice is preserved on that old Lomax acetate disc in a climate-controlled Library of Congress archive, and the library has copied it onto a cassette, which sits on the table, next to the ketchup, in a handheld recorder. “Play” is pushed.

“There is a house in New Orleans …”

Taylor tries to remain impassive. But this is, after all, the voice of his mother, dead 31 years. And here she is as a girl, singing the blues before life had dealt her so many reasons to do so.

“My mother she’s a tailor …”

Taylor’s eyes betray nothing. He sits ramrod straight, contemplating.

“My sweetheart he’s a drunkard, Lord, Lord …”

Then his cheek muscles twitch. The hint of a smile dawns. It can’t hold itself in.

“One foot is on the platform …”

Sure, Georgia Turner is gone and buried, but for a fleeting instant she is present in the Monroe Diner, serenading her son on magnetic tape.

Georgia Turner ‘Did Good’

He never knew about the “Rising Sun” connection; he was in the service when Lomax tracked her down in 1963 and began sending what royalties there were. By then, Lomax told her, the song had been “pirated.” Taylor’s sister, Faye, has kept the stubs from the few checks that came — $117.50 total, hardly enough to help support 10 children.

Taylor wishes she’d gotten enough to buy better medical treatment. “It would be so nice,” he says, “if she did get some recognition for something she did good.”

She did do good, it seems. Her favorite song is a ringing tone for a mobile phone in Hong Kong. It’s background music in a Thai restaurant in Keene, N.H., and in a hotel in Nanchang, China — and how many places in between? On the Internet, musicians upload their own “Rising Suns”; a few weeks ago, Gillis Turner’s daughter downloaded the Frijid Pink version he so loved in Vietnam.

Why this song? Who knows? Georgia Turner didn’t create it, but she sang it and it soared. Up from the folkways, onto the highways and beyond.

On the Internet, a computer-generated “House of the Rising Sun” file is credited this way: “By everyone.” And that’s it exactly. Each time a song moves from new mouth to fresh ear, it carries its past along.

If you listen just right, you can hear the chorus that came before. Clarence Ashley and Roy Acuff and Doc Watson are singing; so are Woody Guthrie and Josh White and Lead Belly, each long gone. The Weavers are harmonizing. Eric Burdon is belting out his best. Germany’s Toots Thielemans is manning the mundharmonika.

And you can hear, too, the miner’s daughter from Middlesboro who never asked for much and never got much in return. Georgia Turner, dead and silent 31 years, is still singing the blues away.