The song “House of the Rising Sun” has a murky history, said to have originated in Appalachia, maybe New Orleans and perhaps even England. The song’s ultimate odyssey began on September 15, 1937 when folklorist Alan Lomax recorded a version by 16-year-old Georgia Turner in Middlesboro, Ky. Lomax published the lyrics as “The Rising Sun Blues,” and from there it only grew in popularity.
In “Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song,” author Ted Anthony searches out the twisted roots and many spreading branches of this lonesome ballad. Please welcome him today to the Appalachian History blog.
Appalachian History: When did you first realize the origins of “House of the Rising Sun” would lead you to Appalachia?
Ted Anthony: I originally thought the song was OF New Orleans. But when you listen to the verses — “DOWN in New Orleans,” “going BACK to New Orleans” — you realize it is from an outsider’s perspective. Many of the early versions seemed to point back to the Appalachian tradition, and then I saw Alan Lomax’s book “The Folk Songs of North America,” which was the first time I encountered Middlesboro, Ky., and the name Georgia Turner.
AH: You say “House of….” is one of the most vital pieces of music in American history. Why?
TA: By “vital” I don’t necessarily mean “necessary,” though I think it’s an important song. I mean vital in its more literal sense — full of life. This song has so many incarnations that it keeps renewing itself and its ability to live on.
AH: Most readers will think of Eric Burdon’s version of the song, recorded by The Animals in the ’60s. How many versions have you managed to track down?
TA: More than 400 — some on CD, some on vinyl, many on MP3. And then of course there are those I cannot get hold of — the ever-receding holy grail. I never tire of the diversity of this song — the “I contain multitudes” notion that, to me, is an underpinning of our culture.
AH: Will readers finally learn where this house is in New Orleans and why it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy?
TA: Maybe. Maybe not. Read the book. But I would say this: This is a story about the song and the legend, and how it’s traveled. I conclude in the end that the legend, and how it moved around, is more exciting than any one specific answer.
AH: In the book you say you sang the song in a Bangkok karaoke bar. Can you discuss how an American roots song might have found its way to Bangkok?
TA: I’ve spent chunks of my life in Asia, and American culture is a prized commodity there — or at least has been. What’s more, I have heard a great deal about how GIs in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War would play the song — usually the Animals or Frijid Pink — while stationed there. One of my regrets is that I never was able to track down a version in Vietnamese, which I’m told exists.
AH: In the course of the seven years it took to write this book, you met your future wife. Has she been involved with the project?
TA: She is my muse for sure. She challenged my preconceptions about it, talked about it with me ad infinitum, even agreed to take our honeymoon driving through the backroads of the Southern Highlands looking for the song. I can’t imagine this book without her sharing the adventure. I’m available to accompany her on her next quest.
AH: For the benefit of aspiring writers/historians/genealogists in Appalachia, what were some of your favorite research facilities in the region?
TA: I thought Appalachian State University’s archives were absolutely wonderful and extremely well organized, and the ETSU library in Johnson City, Tenn., was also pivotal to me. What I enjoyed just as much, though, were smaller libraries like the one in West Jefferson, in Ashe County, N.C., where people were as helpful as could be. The Middlesboro Historical Society was also great for capturing a flavor of the place.
As an aside: I love research; I’m totally a research geek. But to try to find the gossamer traces of oral history in printed materials was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced as a journalist.
AH: You say in the book that folk music thrives on change, with songs remade to reflect changing times. Can you cite several examples from the book that illustrate this?
TA: The Animals are the perfect example. I got called out for referring to their version as “definitive,” so I’ll just say “iconic.” But their take on it was such a product of its era, the 60s, with the attendant energy and insolence and dynamism that came to define the decade. It’s hard for me to believe that their version, in 1964, was just 27 years after Georgia Turner sang it in Middlesboro 70 years ago today.
Another good example is “Paradise Club,” by a North Carolina band called the Moaners. They adapted the song to be about a depressing strip club near Carrboro, where they live, and suddenly it became folk music again — expressing current circumstances in a very personal way. It’s not “House of the Rising Sun”; it’s something totally original that is … well, we’ll call it a “descendant” of the original song. I suppose they all are — progeny spreading throughout the republic.
AH: You say you don’t consider yourself a musicologist. How does your ‘American studies’ approach to this topic differ?
TA: It’s more of a self-inoculation. I don’t read music, and I don’t want to put myself forward as an expert in something I’m not. One review said I lacked musical knowledge, and I wholeheartedly agree. That said, I think it’s valuable to come at it from my perspective. In many ways, this isn’t a music book. It’s about a song, yes, but it’s about how culture changes and moves around, and how the enormous cultural and technological forces unleashed in the 20th century changed how we perceived the world. I never wanted it to be a music book; I wanted it to be a book about what it’s like to be American.
AH: Your next project is a book on China. Do you envision any future projects that might take you back to the Appalachian region?
TA: I think, actually, that my next project will focus on how the entertainment economy is permeating the entire American landscape, though I expect I’ll write on China down the road a bit. If I did go back to Appalachia, I’d love to explore how the federal highway system and, later, the Interstate Highway System changed communities and cultures. I’m also fascinated by the relationship between the railroad and Appalachia; there’s a town in West Virginia I once wrote about called Thurmond, a place in the middle of the woods that was one of the busiest and most raucous communities along the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad line. And it had no main street — the railroad track was Main Street. Stuff like that completely intrigues me.
AH: Ted, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us today!