Old Song, Story of Modern Culture, Part 2

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.”

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