Sunday, June 8, 2008

The House of the Rising Sun, The Animals (1964)

Continuing with our mini-theme of Music to Swelter By, today let's examine a song that was another summer hit and exudes steaminess with every bar, The House of the Rising Sun by the Animals.

I can't emphasize enough what a sophisticated song this seemed like when it was released. And by sophisticated, I mean raunchy. Given the nature of everything else that was a success when this was #1 - the next four chart positions were held by the Supremes, Dean Martin, the Dave Clark Five and Bobby Freeman - this thing was a revelation from start to finish.

Pretty much everything I'm about to write here I didn't know about the song until now. A traditional folk song of uncertain provenance, it's been adapted and performed by a range of performers since the 1930s (and possibly longer ago than that), including Roy Acuff, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Glenn Yarborough, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Odetta, Joan Baez ... the list goes on. Much has been written about which version Eric Burdon first heard that inspired him to want to perform it when the Animals began touring with Chuck Berry in England. Some sources say Dylan's was the version, but more say Josh White. I can't find that one, although it's on his Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 6, but here is White performing some other tunes.

The song was rescued from possible oblivion by music historian Alan Lomax, who was recording and compiling favorite traditional American folk songs as sung by ordinary people in their natural habitats for the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Culture (today a part of the Library's American Folklife Center). A Kentucky coal miner's daughter named Georgia Turner offered up a version of the song entitled Rising Sun Blues, sung from the perspective of a fallen woman instead of a man.

Lomax had a missionary zeal for preserving real people's voices for posterity and once commented, ''We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they're not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency.''

Thanks to his efforts, the Animals and many others have discovered it anew and made it their own. The fact that their version got any airplay at all in 1964 at its full 4+ minute length is notable since it just wasn't done at that point, and indeed at first Columbia Records balked at doing it, choosing to first release Baby Let Me Take You Home before taking their chances with House.

An unfortunate sidebar to the story - The arranger's credit for the Animals' recording went to Alan Price only for his astounding organ turn on this, despite Hilton Valentine's luscious lead guitar work here being every bit as defining to the song's success. The hard feelings that this caused among band members were deep and lasting. I've seen various reasons why this occurred to begin with but I don't know what the real explanation was.


karmasartre said...

I knew it was an old folk song but not its storied past. I have the organ in my mind's ear, I'll tune into the guitar next time....

Mombi said...

I'm loving the summer theme... so appropriate for the heat wave we're experiencing. And of course I'm glad to learn more about some of my favorite tunes.

I'm surprised by how often I've experienced these songs coming up in regular conversation and I'm able to tell someone, "I read on my friend Wendy's blog that..."

Bill from NJ said...

I was 17 when this song came out and I remembered thinking: How could a young boy's life be ruined by a trip to a whorehouse? Granted, not the most wholesome of enterprises but ruined . . .?

I don't remember, either, when it occured to me that, perhaps, a young girl might be more likely to be ruined by the Rising Sun than a young boy and then the song made sense to me. And in a much more powerful way.

Either way, the song blew me away. I don't recall a song with such subject matter being that popular in those days.

At roughly the same time The Rolling Stones debuted with "The Rolling Stones Now" which dealt with some of the same things.

It may be the juxtaposition of the two things that prompted me to think of "The House of the Rising Sun" in terms of a girl rather than a boy.

Wendy, does any of this mean anthing to you?