In Search of the House of the Rising Sun

ByABC News
September 12, 2000, 12:38 PM

N E W   O R L E A N S, Sept. 17 -- The man in the red wheelchair blows gently, guiding breath through his saxophone and into the world. Six feet away, his lanky partners 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 Halls 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 prostitutes 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. Its 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 citys 19th-century reputation as the Mississippi Deltas hub of vice and cons.

The History of New Orleans Music

The citys 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.