“There is a house in New Orleans. They call the Rising Sun. And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy. And, God, I know I’m one.”
Cue up the above video. Listen to the music.
The Animals will tell you a tale to convince you to get vaccinated. Don’t believe me? Follow along.
The first hints of the song rolled out of the hills of Appalachia.
Somewhere in the Golden Triangle, far away from New Orleans, where Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee rise in quiet desolation, a warning song about a tailor and a drunk emerged. Sometime around the Civil War, a hint of a tune began. Over the next century, it evolved, until it became cemented in rock culture 50 years ago by The Animals, existing as the version played most commonly today.
In mid-19th century, a medicine show rambled through, stopping in cities like Noetown or Daisy. The small town would empty out for the day to see the entertainers, singers, jugglers perform. Hundreds gathered in the hot summer day. The entertainment solely a pretext for the traveling doctors to sell their wares, the snake oil, and cure-alls, and various patent medicines.
These were isolated towns, with no deliveries, few visitors, and the railroad yet to arrive. Frequently, the only news from outside came from these caravans of entertainers and con men who swept into town. They were like Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz, or a current day Dr. Oz, luring the crowd onto their Goop website, with false advertising, selling colored water, and then disappeared before you realized you were duped. Today, these traveling doctors are of the same ilk that convince parents to not vaccinate their children, to visit stem cell centers that claim false cures, that offer a shiny object with one hand while taking your cash with the other.
Yet, there was a positive in the wake of these patent medicine shows: the entertainment lingered. New songs traveled the same journeys as these medicine shows – new earworms that would then be warbled in the local bars, while doing chores around the barn, or simply walking the Appalachian trails.
In 1941, Alan Lomax, arrived in Noetown, Kentucky, with a microphone and an acetate record and recorded the voice of 16-year-old Georgia Turner singing “House of the Rising Sun.” She didn’t know where she heard that song, but most likely picked it up at the medicine show.
One of those singers was Clarence Ashley, who would croon about the Rising Sun Blues. He sang with Doc Cloud and Doc Hauer, offering tonics for whatever ailed you. Perhaps Georgia Turner heard the song in the early 1900s, as well. Her 1937 version contains the lyrics most closely related to the Animals’ tune.
Lomax spent 1940s gathering songs around Appalachia south. He put these songs into a songbook and spread them throughout the country. He would also return to New York City and gather in a room with legendary folk singers. They would hear these new lyrics, new sounds, and make them their own.
In that room would be Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White, the fathers of folk music. The music Lomax pulled out of the mountains in small towns would become new again in the guitars and harmonicas of the Greenwich Village singers and musicians. Pete Seeger performed with the Weavers, named because they would be weaving songs from the past into new versions.
“House of the Rising Sun” was woven into folk music landscape, evolving and growing. From a major key, White is credited to changing into the minor key we know today. Bob Dylan sang a version. And then in 1964, Eric Burdon and The Animals went with their version that became the standard. An arpeggio guitar opening, the rhythm sped up, a louder sound, and that minor key provides the emotional wallop to this warning song.
Numerous covers followed, including this beautiful version of “Amazing Grace” (another of one of the most covered songs), sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
The song endures for its melody as well as for its lyrics. This was a warning song, a universal song, “not to do what I have done.” The small towns in Kentucky may have heard of the sinful ways of New Orleans and would spread the message with these songs to avoid the brothels, the drink, and the broken marriages that would reverberate with visits to the Crescent City.
“House of the Rising Sun” is one of the most covered songs, traveling wide and far without the need for a medicine show any longer. It was a pivotal moment in rock ‘n roll, turning folk music into rock music. The Animals became huge because of this song, and their version became the standard on which all subsequent covers based their version. It took Bob Dylan’s older version and made it quaint.
This song has been stuck in my head for a while now. My wife is hoping writing about it will keep it from playing any more in our household. There are various reasons it has been resonating with me:
- It traces the origins of folk music and the importance of people like Lomax, Guthrie, to collect and save Americana
- The magic of song evolution – a reminder of how art is built on those who came before, each version with its unique personality
- The release of “House of the Rising Sun” was a seminal, transformative moment when folk became rock music
- The lasting power of warning songs
- The hucksters that enabled this song to be kept alive
That last one has really stuck with me. The medicine shows are an important part of America’s history. For instance, Coca-Cola started as one of those patent medicines, one of the many concoctions by the Atlanta pharmacist Pemberton, sold to treat all that ails us. Dr. Pepper and Coca-Cola, were medicine in a sugary bottle, though often containing alcohol or cocaine. Society wants a cure-all. The marketing and selling during these medicine shows were to sell the placebo, with one of the positive side effects being the emergence of a beautiful, lasting song, “The House of the Rising Sun.”
Those hucksters exist in various forms today, selling detoxifications, magic diet cures, psychic powers of healing, or convincing parents that their kids don’t need vaccines. We need a warning song that goes viral to keep our children safe. We are blessed to be in a world without smallpox, almost rid of polio, and have the knowledge and opportunity to rid the world of other preventable illnesses. Measles was declared eliminated in the US in 2000; now, outbreaks emerge in every news cycle.
The CDC admits they have not been targeting misinformation well. How can we spread the science, the truth, the message faster than the lies? Better marketing? The answer may be through stories and narratives and song, with the backing of good science. “House of the Rising Sun” is a warning song. Maybe we need more. We need that deep history, that long trail to remind us of the pre-vaccine world, when everyone knew someone, either in their own household or next door, who succumbed to one of the childhood illnesses.
Let the “House of the Rising Sun” play on. Create a new version, but let that message reverberate.
Tell your children. They need to be vaccinated.