Caught an archived addition of On Point today. Fascinating. A discussion of the roots of an American classic, The House of the Rising Sun. Far more to it than I had previously ever thought about. And our old friend, Alan Lomax, plays a major part in the story. It wasn’t just The Animals involved. In fact, far from it. They just made the most famous version in 1964. But so many others covered the tune and it originated, most likely, in the Kentucky hills. Though it’s possible that it goes back even further, well into the 18th century. At least part of the song.
Sung by men and women, the song takes on completely different meaning. With the former, it sounds like a young man who has fallen into dissolution, and can’t escape from it. Perhaps he’s killed someone, and has to go back to New Orleans to do jail time for that or for debts incurred while gambling. When a woman sings it (Alan Lomax first heard a woman do the song), it’s likely about prostitution, with the House being her bordello, and the ball and chain being anything from servitude to disease to jail time.
Dissolution, decadence, for those who believe in sin, sin. It’s so 1890s Europe in a sense, though it’s classically American. Blue Jeans puts it there, perhaps more than any other part of the lyric. Locates the song. Locates the poverty and sorrow and longing for home and family. Longing for a way out though resigned to the facts that say otherwise. Amazing that it all probably started in Appalachia, but is about a return to New Orleans, which may be the least Appalachian of our cities. Sin, dissolution, decadence, and the feeling of being inexorably drawn to one’s own demise might just be universal. Might just be a template we can all hum to. There is a house for that sort of thing.