Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sex, Alcoholism, Unwed Motherhood and a Song

In 1964 the Animals released a single that for some unknown reason fascinated me. This was the early 60's and still a time when 16 year olds knew less about life and sex than do many 12 year olds today. There was no legal abortion or effective birth control beyond condoms and abstinence. The quality of the condoms were questionable, unlike today. Unwed pregnant girls were forced into marrying the fathers of the child if the parents of the boy were willing. If that wasn't an option, sometimes girls were shoved out of the homes with little more than the clothes upon their backs and left to fend for themselves. Orphanages and homes for unwed mothers hadn't begun to close down for lack of business. Yet, here was this British group singing about SEX and houses of prostitution. Oh MY GAWD! Fascinating? You betcha!

House of the Rising Sun took The Animals to a number 1 spot on the music charts and gave them the honor of being the first British group to achieve that, after the Beatles of course. It's not that we didn't love Herman and the Hermits, or the Dave Clark 5, or any other British group we were listening to at the time, it was just that their songs were good, but not quite good enough for the number 1 spot. They weren't so blatantly

I don't ever remember anyone dancing to that tune at any of the dances I went to. The boys would cluster on one side of the floor and watch us girls teeheeing and blushing on the other side of the floor. The embarrassment probably kept us apart. I mean...really! Who would ever at that time actually dance to something like that? It might give the wrong idea. One had to guard their reputations at all cost back then. No girl wanted to be considered loose, or fast, or slutty and boys being boys would do that to you at the drop of the hat just to make themselves look important. To hear them talk, none of us were virgins.

All of us were embarrassed by that song only IF we heard it in mixed company. We would say the song was wicked and hadn't ought to be played on the radio, and secretly we all had a copy of the 45 AND knew all the words. Parents allowed the song in their homes because it told of the sorrows inherent in being loose and bore out the claims that having sex without the benefit of marriage was the road to perdition. It was a "man" thing and "girls" weren't supposed to like it. Yeah, right!

It was first recorded in 1937 by an unknown and then again in the 40's by Woody Guthrie. It is originally a folk song from the Appalachian hill region about a young prostitute who is lamenting what her life has become. It was originally titled "Rising Sun Blues". The traditional words are:

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 Mamma said,
I'd 'a' been 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 sold those 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.
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.

It's believed that a song with it's origins in Appalachia would have New Orleans as a setting because New Orleans was considered the epitome of sin at the time. The words were most likely set to a melody born in Scotland, Ireland or England as most folk tunes of that area were. Eric Burdon believed the chords were similar to those found in English church music, most specifically funeral dirges.

There actually was a hotel in New Orleans that held the name The Rising Sun. Advertisements at the time do suggest that more than just a bed for the night was available. An excavation on the site of the hotel yielded something that would be unusual for a hotel if it was just a hotel. Along with some unearthed beer bottles there was evidence of heavy bottom rouge pots. The bottoms were heavy so that a swipe of the fingertips wouldn't tip the pot over or cause it to fall off the vanity. Suggestive of someone needing to refresh their makeup in a hurry? The evidence of the rouge pots by itself is interesting but when one adds it to this sentence found in the advertising it makes you wonder. The sentence is: "Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants." Have they found the Rising Sun? Not necessarily as this is after all, a folk song. An oft recorded folk song at that.

Apparently I wasn't the only one for whom this song held a fascination. It has been recorded by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Odetta, Bob Dylan and was a one hit wonder for a group called Frijid Pink, in the 1970's. I considered posting more than one version, but since it was The Animals version that we listened to and were fascinated by, I chose to stick with the one that brung me.

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