The man in the red wheelchair blows gently, guiding breath through his saxophone and into the world. Six feet away, his lanky partner’s fingers massage an electric guitar in a mournful strum.
Up the street a bit, tipsy exuberants wander a barscape of frozen drinks and plastic cups, raucous Cajun bands rattle their washboards and Preservation Hall’s Dixieland jazz sweats its spirited path into the night.
But not here. Not on this spot. This is a shadowy city corner at midnight, a place where Bourbon Street and indulgent evenings end. This is a place for the blues.
The sidewalk musicians do not sing. But passing couples, lubricated and listing, know the words. A few add lyrics, and the ballad takes shape: a prostitute’s dirge in a minor key, an old lament about a wayward girl. “There is a house in New Orleans … ”
“People come around that corner, from any country, they know it,” says Reid Netterville, the 34-year-old guitarist who has played with saxophonist Milton Martin for 11 years right at this intersection. “It’s so deep in the heart of this culture.”
Not surprising. For New Orleans is the home of the House of the Rising Sun — the legend at least, and maybe — once, long ago — the reality.
The song that launched the myth of a brothel where Southern girls met ruinous ends is known by all in New Orleans, though there is little indication it originated here. It probably arose from the city’s 19th-century reputation as the Mississippi Delta’s hub of vice and cons.
The History of New Orleans Music
The city’s Storyville section was indeed notorious for its ample, open offerings of female flesh for sale. Madams used monikers like Gypsy Schaefer and Countess Willie Piazza, and in-house piano players called “professors” set sins to song.
More than that, though, this is a perfect locale for a song that has crossed genres with glee. For New Orleans, like the song itself, is a cultural, racial gumbo — a Creole city where races and cultures and traditions mingled to form something entirely new. Ragtime rose to prominence here, and of course Dixieland Jazz owes its origins to the Crescent City.
Traces of that musical past are hiding in plain sight here, everywhere you look. In the old U.S. Mint up at the Quarter’s northern edge, you can walk the history of New Orleans music from the brass band and the Negro spiritual through Jelly Roll Morton right up to posters of modern Dixieland jazz bands from Zimbabwe and Zurich.
What’s more, there actually is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun. But it’s not a brothel; it’s a bed and breakfast run by Kevin and Wendy Herridge, Brit and Louisianan respectively, who love the legend and have collected more than 40 versions of the song.
Their hostel features ample brothelabilia. “Street girls bringing in sailors must pay for room in advance,” advises one old sign. Admonishes another: “Ladies — kindly do your soliciting discreetly.” An entire bedroom is adorned as if it were an Asian prostitute’s, well, office.
Herridge pulls out a guidebook to “Offbeat New Orleans,” which asserts that the real House of the Rising Sun was at 826-830 St. Louis St. between 1862 and 1874, and purportedly named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname in translation would mean “The Rising Sun.”
“Pack of lies,” Herridge scoffs.
A Brit’s Ode to a Brothel
Eric Burdon isn’t so sure. The lead singer of The Animals, the group that popularized “House of the Rising Sun” for good in 1964, visits New Orleans often — and wonders what people here think of him for turning their city into a prostitute’s legend.
“They’re trying to build up tourism, and here’s this Brit singing about a whorehouse,” he says, chuckling.
When he visits, everyone has a story — a notion about where the “real” house is or was.
“People would come up to me and say, ‘You want to know where the real House of the Rising Sun is? And I’d say, ‘I’ve heard that one before,’” he says. “Then I started going along for the ride.”
“I’d go to women’s prisons, coke dealers’ houses, insane asylums, men’s prisons, private parties. They just wanted to get me there.”
But the St. Louis Street building — well, let’s just say Burdon connected with it at once when the owner invited him over. She made him sing “House of the Rising Sun” a capella for 40 minutes, he jokes. “What can I tell you?” he says. “The house was talking to me.”
Was there ever really a House of the Rising Sun? No one can say for sure. But in the end, it matters little. Because in the universe of music, in the world of Eric Burdon and a New Orleans French Quarter happy to latch onto any exuberant myth, the legend itself may well be enough.