House of the Rising Sun

Thursday, January 1st, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

The House of the Rising Sun is one of the best known rock songs, a landmark across many genres: American blues and folk, the British Invasion, garage rock and even punk. Its origins are complicated and contested; people still argue whether it was Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or The Animals who ushered the song into the popular mainstream. It probably dates to 18th-century American folk tradition but entered ethnographic fact on September 15, 1937, when folklorist Alan Lomax taped a 16-year-old miner’s daughter, Georgia Turner, performing the song in Middlesborough, Kentucky. Since then, many have rendered their own versions, from Roy Acuff (1937), Woody Guthrie (1941), Lead Belly (1948), Glenn Yarbrough (1957), to Bob Dylan (1961). The song, however, did not become a classic until 1964, when the The Animals from Newcastle, Britain made it into a number one hit.

The song refers to a New Orleans house of prostitution with a contested archaeological history. Some claim that 826-830 Louis Street is the original location of the house, originating from the name Marianne LeSoliel Levant, the brothel’s Madam from 1862 to 1874. There is no proof of this lineage. An 1838 newspaper mentions a Rising Sun coffee house on Decatur Street, and a Rising Sun hotel stood on Conti Street before it burned down in 1822. The latter site was the subject of a 2004 excavation by Shannon Lee Dawdy, now assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago. Dawdy could not conclusively prove whether this was the famous House of the Rising Sun. For Dawdy’s fascinating work after Katrina, see John Schwarts, “Shannon Lee Dawdy: Archaeologist in New Orleans Finds a Way to Help the Living,” New York Times (Jan. 3, 2006).

More interesting than the song’s real archaeology is its idealized archaeological projection. The Animals performed their number one hit in the 1965 music film Pop Gear, surrounded by a fantasized archaeological cage, stripped down in groovy mid-modern minimalism. The clip (seen here) is absolutely stunning. The artistic level of its production is so superior that it makes one wonder what happened to the integration between popular music and the visual arts.

The set design is based on an Ionic colonnade built by purely white thin boards through which The Animals circumnavigate. A yellow wall (matching the band’s shirts, beneath their 4-button suits) forms the background and receives both the white thin columns and their intense gray shadows. I’ve tried to capture the dynamism of this imagined House of the Rising Sun in a sketch at the beginning, but much of the energy of the video comes from the movement of the mobile musicians (Burdon, Valentine, Chandler) around the stationary musicians (Gallagher, Steel), the close ups on Burdon, and the movement of the camera behind the colonnade providing a peculiar (both thin and thick) sense of depth. The set reconfigures the porch of southern domestic architecture, its classical vocabulary, as well as its papery thinness. The composition, however, is entirely modernist with Cubist composition, Constructivist combinations and an Expressionist sense of light.

The L-shaped elements may also remind us of the hang-man games we played as children and, thus, suggest connotations of lynching. Without a doubt, The Animals were aware of Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit. A fascinating song in its own right,Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx. Meeropol cited Lawrence Beitler’s graphic 1933 photograph (click here) as inspiration for the lyrics, which he published in a school-teacher union magazine in 1936. Holiday performed the song at the first integrated night club in Greenwich Village in 1939. But this is only a slight, if not sublimated reading.

Overall, The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun is pure form. Like the British Invasion in general, the clean-cut gentlemen from Newcastle distilled the southern blues, and repackaged them with a sleek force that could bring down the walls. Cleaned up, the House of the Rising Sun stops being an item of ethnographic “authenticity” and becomes pure libidinal force. Much more than the legendary Beatles, Eric Burdon and The Animals offer the building blocks of a raw subversiveness that leads straight to The Clash. One can clearly see that the architectural style of Deconstructivism begins in 1965. Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Liebeskind and other paper-thin superstars suddenly seem derivative. Are The Animals so important? I hope to study more Pop Gear clips and see how other peer groups contributed to punk archaeology. This includes performances by Herman’s Hermits, The Four Pennies, Matt Monroe, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and other slightly forgotten pioneers of what we now group under the category of garage rock.

I must thank my 10-year-old nephew Sean Gray for introducing me to Pop Gearinadvertently. Grandparents Terry and Brenda Gray got Sean a guitar for his birthday in July. During the last few months, Sean has become a studious guitar player, giving his first public recital in Albuquerque, of the House of the Rising Sun. He emailed The Animals video to his uncle and aunt, in case they had never heard of the song before. Since I also got a guitar last Christmas (thanks to Terry and Brenda), I have taken up the challenge of the Rising Sun. Sean is much better than me, but Popi is enjoying the finger picking across the classic Am, C, D, F and E7th chords.

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One comment on “House of the Rising Sun

  1. […] Punk Archaeology A collaborative exploration of the links between archaeology and the musical underground of Punk and New Wave « House of the Rising Sun […]

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