Old Song, Story of Modern Culture, Part 2

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.

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