Who's the girl in this popular song?
“There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun, it’s been the ruin of many poor girls, and me, O God, for one.”
There are songs that, like myths, are ingrained in our collective imagination and have become anthems passed on from generation to generation. That’s the case of “The House of the Rising Sun,” a ballad that has been adapted and covered countless times because of the tragic and emotional story it tells. But what’s the story behind this song, sung and popularized by the British band The Animals in the 1960s, and that since then has remained one of the most famous folk songs?
It tells the story of a woman (apparently a very young one) talking about how her life became a living hell when she decided to abandon her family. Many people see it as a representation of poverty and injustice, and thus, an anthem many people can actually relate to. Set in New Orleans, many historians, musicologists, and anthropologists have devoted their time and efforts to find not only the song's origins, but also the House's location to understand what happened to the woman in the song.
Music specialists claim that the song belongs to the folk ballad tradition that was so popular between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, which doesn't really help us pinpoint when the song was created. They believe that although there’s no way to really know who wrote it or when, because of its folkloric nature, it can be traced more than two centuries back. Now, although many people are certain it's an American song, some specialists believe that it actually evolved from a popular song called “The Unfortunate Rake,” an English sixteenth-century folk song with many variants, one of the most popular being a story about a man dying from syphilis. Over the years, passing from voice to voice, it was transformed and adapted to many different situations and stories, like soldiers dying in the war or sailors lost at sea.
As for the name of the song, it’s believed that “Rising Sun” was a popular name for English pubs and that New Orleans was only a way to claim the song and make it more relatable when it arrived in the US. Now, if you think about the history of the city, there are other versions of the story that could also fit in their theories. Since the city belonged to the French for such a long time, other musicologists believe it was actually introduced by French migrants, but that the song dates back to the time of Louis XIV, meaning that it was a popular song during the seventeenth century and not the previous one.
What's true is that from the moment it arrived in the US, it became such a popular song that even today, many are extremely interested in knowing for sure what’s behind this heartbreaking tune that has moved millions over the centuries. However, this is kind of an impossible mission and a huge mystery no one will ever be able to solve. There are two folk singers who made a record with it. The first one was Clarence Ashley in 1933, who claimed he learned the song from his grandfather. The other one was Alan Lomax, who in 1941 produced the song using a girl named Georgia Turner as the main voice of the song to make it more relatable to the story it tells.
In his book, Chasing the Rising Sun, Ted Antony explains how the song came to both musicians at a time when information was still hard to move from town to town, reaching the conclusion that, originally, the song was transmitted orally thanks to the railroad. Ashley traveled around in the Appalachian region in the 1920s. Back then, medicine shows were extremely popular. These shows were basically people selling “medical” remedies (which were usually nothing but alcohol mixed with sugar), while singers performed for the people who gathered around them. The singers made money from these performances, of course, while the "doctors" used the songs as jingles that people could remember and associate with their products. Another theory is that in the previous decades, the railway was still being built, so workers sang folk songs as they worked, which would explain how the song traveled across the country.
As for the location of the famous House of the Rising Sun, many New Orleans tour guides claim that it was a hotel in the French Quarter that operated between 1808 and 1822 and that was actually a men’s hotel, in other words, a brothel. This has become one of the most popular stories, since the song clearly states that the life of the young woman tragically changed when she abandoned her house, and it’s most likely that she was taken to the brothel to work.
The other story is that it actually talks about a women’s prison outside New Orleans that had the image of a sun over the gate. Although there’s no evidence about the sun image, many believe the story is plausible because of the song's lyrics (in early versions, the narrator mentions a ball and chain, two of the main tools used in prisons at the time) and the fact that in the nineteenth century many women were sent to prison, especially those who disobeyed their husbands or worked as prostitutes. Either way, it matches the melancholy vibe of the song.
It’s a fact that we’ll never know for sure what the story of this girl was or when it was first sung, but what we do know is that this song will remain in our collective imagination forever not only because of the historical and folkloric vibe it has, but also the mystery that surrounds it.
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