Friday, November 5, 2010

Animals -- "House of the Rising Sun" (1964) (part 1)

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 


A full year has passed since I brought "2 or 3 lines" into life, kicking and screaming and generally making a nuisance of himself by constantly demanding attention.  Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, after all.

I thought long and hard before deciding which song I would write about to kick off year 2 A.B. ("anno bloggus").  The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" fully deserves the honor I have decided to bestow upon it.  It's a song that I dare say is quite familiar to almost everyone who is reading this post – so familiar that perhaps we only half-listen to it when it pops up on the local "oldies" station.

"House of the Rising Sun" is an absolutely relentless song that has not lost a bit of its power in the 45-plus years since its release.  Is there a single thing that could be done to improve it?  I don't think so.

Eric Burdon first heard "House of the Rising Sun" sung in a club in Newcastle, England, by an English folk singer.  The song was probably between 50 and 100 years old at that time, and had been recorded by a number of prominent American folk singers (unbeknownst to Eric and his mates). 

The Animals started playing the song during a tour with Chuck Berry, often closing their act with it.  Audiences seemed to love it, which convinced producer Mickie Most that it might have some potential as a single.

Well, Mickie was right.  The song was a #1 hit in both the UK and the US – where it was the first #1 hit by a "British invasion" group other than the Beatles.  It sold a million copies in 5 weeks in the US alone.  Critics and rock historians have been virtually unanimous in praising it.

Believe it or not, the Animals recorded "House of the Rising Sun" in one take. One take!  (The producer later said that the whole recording process took at most 15 minutes, start to finish.)

This is a "not all about me" post, but I have to tell one personal story.  "House of the Rising Sun" was part of the Rogues' repertoire.  I think we performed it in public at least once -- at a Twin Hills' pool party one summer evening, which was attended by about a dozen kids, I think.

As the keyboard player, I naturally loved any song that gave me such a prominent role – and I think this was the one song I was allowed to sing.  (I had a relatively low voice – so did Jim Morrison – and for some reason we thought this song would work with a baritone/bass lead vocal.)  It's hard for me to imagine I was capable of singing and playing the organ part simultaneously.  Maybe someone else ended up singing it.


Let's start with the words of the song, and its history.  Then we're going to analyze the music.  The lyrics tell an interesting tale but the music is what makes the Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun" so compelling.

The story the song tells seems fairly straightforward.  The singer (presumably a male given that Eric Burdon is the singer) laments how a place in New Orleans called the "House of the Rising Sun" has ruined his life.  The first verse (quoted above) is a spoiler – we know the singer's life has been  ruined as a result of that evil place, but we don't know why.  

We learn about the narrator's upbringing in verse two.  His mother – no doubt she tried to keep him on the straight and narrow – was a hardworking type, while his father relied on Lady Luck for his daily bread:  

My mother was a tailor 
She sewed my new bluejeans 
My father was a gamblin' man 
Down in New Orleans 

I picture the father as a dandy – sort of a Yancy Derringer type.

Yancy Derringer
It's not clear whether the third verse is about the father or the son – or both – but what is clear is that we have added alcohol to the gambling:

Now the only thing a gambler needs 
Is a suitcase and trunk 
And the only time he's satisfied 
Is when he's on a drunk 

Did the son follow the father into the "House of the Rising Sun," falling prey to the same vices his father did?  Or did the son succumb to its evils all by himself?  We can't say for sure.  What we can say is that something very bad happened to our hero there:

Oh mother tell your children 
Not to do what I have done 
Spend your lives in sin and misery 
In the House of the Rising Sun 

The singer will have plenty of time to ponder his crimes and vices, because he's going to the poke for a nice long spell:

Well, I got one foot on the platform 
The other foot on the train 
I'm goin' back to New Orleans 
To wear that ball and chain 

To make sure we didn't miss the point, the singer then repeats the first verse – damning the "House of the Rising Sun" once more for all the lives it has ruined.

*     *     *     *     *

What do you think the "House of the Rising Sun" was?  My assumption is that it was one of those all-purpose dens of iniquity that were such a prominent feature of frontier towns – a combination saloon-gambling house-whorehouse.  (Maybe there was even an opium den in the back.)

Main Street, Joplin (circa 1900) --
the "House of Lords" is at the far left

My home town – Joplin, Missouri – had a famous gilded palace of sin called the "House of Lords" back in the Gay Nineties.  But what comes to mind when I try to imagine what the "House of the Rising Sun" was like is the "Gem," a saloon that opened in Deadwood, South Dakota at the height of the famous Black Hills gold rush, and which is depicted in the HBO series Deadwood.

The fictional "Gem" is a very sordid place.  So is the fictional Deadwood.  You can find a cup of coffee in the mornings, but from about 9 a.m. on, the beverage of choice is whiskey.  Once the miners have knocked back a few shots, they're ready to gamble and have a little female companionship.  The prostitutes are a pretty nasty-looking bunch, although they aren't quite as repulsive as the miners.  

The life expectancy in Deadwood is pretty short.  There's plenty of disease to go around.  If you strike it rich, there's a good chance you'll get killed in a drunken brawl (usually involving gambling or one of the whores) while enjoying your riches, or simply murdered during a robbery.  Inconvenient dead bodies are taken to "Chinaman's Alley" and sold to the Chinese butcher, who feeds them to his pigs.  Mmmm, mmmm, good!  

"Deadwood" working girl
I remember only three female characters in the whole town who weren't whores.  One was the sheriff's wife – she was his brother's widow, and you were obliged in those days to step in and marry your brother's wife if something happened to him. 

The second was a transplanted New Yorker whose deceased husband had lucked into a major gold find.  But she got pregnant out of wedlock (by the sheriff), and was an on-again, off-again opium addict, so she was no paragon of virtue.  

The third was Calamity Jane, who dressed like a man, cursed like a man, and was such an out-of-control drunk that she usually woke up each morning soaked in her own urine.  

The first two of these women were married, and those were the only two married women I remember.  Every other female in Deadwood was single and ready to mingle.  (If you had the money, honey, they had the time.)  It wasn't exactly a place known for its strong family values.  

Many people wonder if the "House of the Rising Sun" was an actual brothel, or combination saloon-brothel, but historians have been unable to pin down a real New Orleans establishment that went by that name.  

Some believe that the song's title is a reference to the Orleans Parish women's prison, which they say had an entrance gate with a rising sun design.  

The prison theory fits the "ball and chain" line in the song, but a women's prison?

You see, the earliest versions of "The House of the Rising Sun" featured a female narrator singing in the first person.  Here are lyrics that folklorist Alan Lomax published in 1941, several years after he first heard the song sung by Georgia Turner, a 16-year-old Kentucky coal miner's daughter.  (She died of emphysema at age 48, having received a grand total of $117.50 in royalties for her recording of "House of the Rising Sun.")
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, 
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, 
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.
I'm going back to New Orleans 
To wear that ball and chain.
Going back to New Orleans
My race is almost run. 
Going back to spend the rest of my days 
Beneath that Rising Sun.

Most of the pre-Animals recordings – including those done by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan – featured these lyrics (or some variation on them) but were muscially quite varied.  

Click here for Nina Simone's 1962 version, which she transforms from a old-timey folk song to a jazz/soul song.

Click here to listen to Dylan's 1962 recording.  Note that Dylan's performs the song in 6/8 time (like the Animals) and uses a similar (although far from identical) chord progression).  

The Animals denied that their arrangement was inspired by Dylan's version.  Dylan was wowed by the Animals' single when he heard it on a car radio, but stopped performing the song because many fans – unaware that his recording had been released over two years before the Animals' version was recorded – believed he had copied the Animals.

*     *     *     *     *

I don't know whether the Animals changed the lyrics so that a male was the narrator, or whether they heard someone else perform it that way.  The original lyrics do hang together a little better, I think.

But it always bothers me a little to hear a male sing a first-person song about a woman, or vice versa, so I'm glad the Animals did the song from a male's point of view.  

The best (or worst) example of that I can offer of a transgendered song that just didn't cut it is Linda Ronstadt's version of the Lowell George song, "Willin'."  

"Willin'" is sung by a "drunk and dirty" truck driver, who's not above smuggling cigarettes or transporting illegals across the border to make an extra buck – a modern-day cowboy, driving the lonely highways of the desert Southwest:
I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari, 
Tehachapi to Tonapah 
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made 
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed 

Kenworth W900
Linda Ronstadt included "Willin'" on her very successful Heart Like a Wheel album, but – sorry, Linda – it just didn't work.  I can't see you behind the wheel of a dusty Kenworth W900, heading out of Tonopah on U.S. 95 to deliver a load of 50-pound bags of composted sheep manure to a Home Depot distribution center.  

(Still with me, boys and girls?)

It seems that the woman in the original version of "House of the Rising Sun" is heading to prison because she killed her sweetheart.  (In some recordings, he is a "gambler," not a "rambler.")  Or was she busted for prostitution?  Or maybe the "ball and chain" is meant figuratively, not literally, and she is heading back to the house of ill repute out of economic necessity because her lover has deserted her.  Maybe she is fed up with his drinking.  (Maybe you have a different theory.)  

Cherchez la femme!
So how did the hero in the Animals' version of the song end up in a ball and chain?  What terrible thing happened at the "House of the Rising Sun" anyway?  Did he kill a gambler who was cheating at cards?  Did he kill his father for abusing his mother?

I say cherchez la femme.  I suspect a woman was the root of the problem.  Maybe he fell in love with a working girl there and killed her – or a customer of hers – in a fit of whisky-fueled jealousy one night.  

Or maybe he didn't kill her, but just threw a pot of hot coffee in her face so other men wouldn't want her (like Lee Marvin did to Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat):

Booze, or drugs, or gambling may have had something to do with our boy ending up in shackles, headed for the big house.  But trust me, there was a woman involved.  That's for sure . . . that's for damn sure.

(Click here to go to part two of this post.)

1 comment:

  1. One of the more puzzling things about the HOTRS is that it has the exact same meter as the hymn "Amazing Grace", I have heard the hymn sung tothe HOTRS tune and it does get you thinking.