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And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy, and God, I know I'm one.
A staple of classic rock and oldies radio stations, the song 'House of the Rising Sun', recorded in 1964 by the British band The Animals, relates the story of a young boy led into a life of misery at a house of prostitution or gambling in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Was there ever really a place called 'House of the Rising Sun' in New Orleans? It depends on who you ask.
First, let's examine the song. The Animals recorded their version for EMI Records in just one take, during a stopover on an American tour with rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry. Upon release, it was immediately successful and became the band's first big hit, peaking at number one in the UK singles charts in July 1964. The song went on to be released in America, and in August of that year, during the height of the so-called 'British Invasion'1 it topped the American singles charts for three weeks. The song sold over a million copies in just five weeks in the USA alone.
While this version has become a pop icon of the 1960s, it's hardly the first recording of the song. The earliest recorded version dates back to 1932 by Clarence 'Tom' Ashley as 'Rising Sun Blues', and it was recorded again in 1934 by The Callahan Brothers as 'Rounder's Luck'. With the evolution of folk music in the 1940s and 1950s, the song went through numerous incarnations, by such notable singers as Josh White, Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter, Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. As the 1960s rolled around, both Joan Baez and Bob Dylan made a stab at recording the song.
The song's origins are somewhat curious. The original melody resembles an arrangement of 'Matty Groves', a traditional English ballad, but the lyrics appear to have ties to the hills of the American South.
In 1937 Alan Lomax2, an American folklorist, was travelling the United States to record and preserve American traditional folk music. In Middlesboro, Kentucky he met 16-year-old Georgia Turner, a dirt-poor miner's daughter, who he recorded singing a song she called 'Rising Sun Blues'. Miss Turner could not remember where she had learned the song, other than from the front porches of her parents' and grandparents' homes in the small rural town. Indeed, according to an Associated Press article by Ted Anthony dated 16 September, 2000, the lyrics are traditional:
Various accounts have it kicking around the South since the Civil War, a cautionary tale for those who'd stray. Sometimes, when it came from a man's mouth, it was a gambler's song. More often, it was a woman's warning to shun that house in New Orleans that's 'been the ruin of many a poor girl'.
A few other musicians from the region were singing it between the World Wars. Clarence Ashley, born three mountains over from Middlesboro in Bristol, Tennessee, sang it as a rounder's lament. The song, he said shortly before his death in 1967, was 'too old for me to talk about. I got it from some of my grandpeople.' And a Library of Congress correspondent, in a handwritten version submitted in 1925, said he learned it 'from a southerner ... of the type that generally call themselves one o' th' boys.'
Although Lomax recorded two other versions of the song before leaving Kentucky, it was the Georgia Turner version that he included in his 1941 compilation songbook Our Singing Country, and he gave her the songwriting credit, along with 'several stanzas by Bert Martin'.
(Lyrics as sung by Georgia Turner)
There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.
It's been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, O God, for one.
If I had listened what Mama said, I'd be at home today.
Being so young and foolish, poor boy, let a rambler lead me astray.
Go tell my baby sister never do like I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.
My mother she's a tailor, she sewed these new blue jeans.
My sweetheart, he's a drunkard, Lord, Lord, drinks down in New Orleans.
The only thing a drunkard needs is a suitcase and a trunk.
The only time he's satisfied is when he's on a drunk.
Fills his glasses to the brim, passes them around.
Only pleasure he gets out of life is hoboin' from town to town.
One foot is on the platform and the other one on the train.Going back to New Orleans, my race is almost run.
I'm going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain.
Going back to spend the rest of my days beneath that Rising Sun.
The House of the Rising Sun
Was there ever really such a place in New Orleans that inspired the lyrics to this song? In the late 18th Century and most of the 19th Century, as well as today, prostitution and backroom gambling was illegal3. It's probable that places where these activities went on didn't publicly advertise their trade. Did establishments such as these exist at that time in New Orleans? Without a doubt. New Orleans is a port city, located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and merchants and sailors who were far away from home were constantly streaming in and out. In 1862, during the American Civil War, the Confederate Army in New Orleans surrendered the city and it fell into Union occupation, thus leaving many northern homesick soldiers in want of comfort and entertainment.
In the history of New Orleans, there have been several business establishments that bore the name Rising Sun. Without help of public advertising of brothels or gambling houses, it is difficult to determine if the House of the Rising Sun existed, or perhaps as was the custom, this term was used as one of many euphemisms to describe houses conducting illicit business.
There is a house located at number 826-830 St Louis Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans which is current owners claim is the famed, former House of the Rising Sun Brothel, originally run by a Madam named Marianne LeSoliel Levant (whose surname translates from French into 'Rising Sun'), from 1862 through 1874. The owners, however, can offer no solid proof of this claim.
Newspaper advertisements in 1838 also mention a Rising Sun Coffee House on Decatur Street in the city, but this establishment never had a claim of fame as a brothel or gambling hall, and it is no longer in existence.
There was a Rising Sun Hall in the 1890s, which served as a 'benevolent association' hall; it booked dances and rented rooms to musicians. These halls and clubs were the very birthplace of jazz. It is conceivable that prostitution and gambling occurred in the backrooms of these halls, with the constant transience of travelling musicians. This is purely speculation though, as no oral or written history exists about these goings-on.
In the early 1800s there was The Rising Sun Hotel, located on Conti Street in the heart of the French Quarter. During its time of operation, the hotel was sold to new owners. In January 1821, an advertisement for the hotel in the Louisiana Gazette states the new owners will 'maintain the character of giving the best entertainment, which this house has enjoyed for 20 years past. Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants. The bar will be supplied with genuine good Liquors; and the Table, the fare will be of the best the market or the season will afford'. Although the advert does not prove that anything illicit was happening at The Rising Sun, it suggests it was a place where men went for a good time. In 1822, the hotel burned to the ground, and was never rebuilt.
In 2005 this site was excavated by archaeologists in search of ancient Native American artefacts, and some interesting things were unearthed, making the former hotel 'look impressively like a bordello', according to Shannon Dawdy, the lead archaeologist. Dawdy cited finding combinations of broken pieces of 'tons of liquor bottles' and several rouge pots4.
So, does any of this prove there was an actual brothel named The House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans? According to Pamela D Arceneaux, a well-respected research librarian who works at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans and helps maintain the Historic New Orleans Collection, er... no. She is quoted in numerous articles as saying on the subject:
I have made a study of the history of prostitution in New Orleans and have often confronted the perennial question, 'Where is the House of the Rising Sun?' without finding a satisfactory answer. Although it is generally assumed that the singer is referring to a brothel, there is actually nothing in the lyrics that indicate that the 'house' is a brothel. Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics.
Maybe, lyrics are just lyrics.