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The House of the Rising Sun

"The House of the Rising Sun" is a folk song from the United States. Also called "House of the Rising Sun" or occasionally "Rising Sun Blues", it tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans. Depending on the version, the song may be sung from the perspective of a woman or a man. The most famous version was recorded by the English rock group The Animals in 1964, which was a number one hit in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden and Canada.

Origin and early versions

Like many classic folk ballads, the authorship of "The House of the Rising Sun" is uncertain. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads such as the Unfortunate Rake of the 18th century which were taken to America by early settlers. Many of these had the theme of "if only" and after a period of evolution, they emerge as American songs like "Streets of Laredo". The tradition of the blues combined with these in which the telling of a sad story has a therapeutic effect.

The oldest known existing recording is by versatile Smoky Mountain artists Clarence "Tom" Ashley and Gwen Foster and was made in 1933. Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley. Texas Alexander's The Risin' Sun, which was recorded in 1928, is sometimes mentioned as the first recording, but this is a completely different song. The Callahan Brothers recorded the song in 1934.

The song might have been lost to posterity had it not been collected by folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax and his father were curators of the Archive of American Folk Song for the Library of Congress from 1932. They searched the country for songs. On an expedition with his wife to eastern Kentucky Lomax set up his recording equipment in Middlesborough, Kentucky in the house of someone called Tilman Cable. On 15 Sept 1937 he recorded a performance by Georgia Turner, the 16 year-old daughter of a miner. He called it The Risin' Sun Blues. Lomax later recorded a different version sung by Bert Martin. Lomax in his seminal 1941 songbook, Our Singing Country credited the lyrics to Georgia Turner, with reference to Bert Martin's version. The melody bears similarities to a traditional English ballad, Matty Groves .

Roy Acuff, who recorded the song commercially on November 3, 1938, may have learned the song from Clarence Ashley with whom he sometimes performed. In 1941, Woody Guthrie recorded a version. In late 1948 Lead Belly recorded a version called "In New Orleans" in the sessions that later became the album Lead Belly's Last Sessions (1994, Smithsonian Folkways). In 1957 Glenn Yarbrough recorded the song for Elektra Records. The song is also credited to Ronnie Gilbert on one of the old Weavers albums with Pete Seeger that was released in the late 40's or early 50's. Joan Baez recorded it in 1960 on her premier album. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkyYHYUcGgo

In 1962 Bob Dylan recorded the song on his first and self-titled album, Bob Dylan. Dylan claims a writer's credit for the song. In an interview on the documentary No Direction Home, Dave Van Ronk said that he was intending to record it at that time, and that Bob Dylan copied his version of the song.

An interview with Eric Burdon of The Animals revealed that he first heard the song in a club in Newcastle and it was sung by a Northumbrian folk singer called Johnny Handle. The Animals were on tour with Chuck Berry and chose it because they wanted something distinctive to sing. This interview refutes assertions that the inspiration for The Animals' arrangement came directly from Dylan's recording, from Josh White or Nina Simone (who recorded it before Dylan on Nina at the Village Gate). Regardless, the Animals enjoyed a huge hit with the song, much to Dylan's chagrin when his version was referred to as a cover of The Animals' version - the irony of which was not lost on Van Ronk. Dave Van Ronk went on record as saying that the whole issue was a "tempest in a teapot", and that Dylan stopped playing the song after The Animals' hit because fans accused Dylan of plagiarizing the Animals' version. Bob Dylan has said he first heard The Animals' version on his automobile radio and "jumped out of his car seat" because he liked it so much.

The Animals version

Regardless of its sources of inspiration, The Animals' take on "The House of the Rising Sun" sounded wholly new: writer Dave Marsh described it as "the first folk-rock hit," sounding "as if they'd connected the ancient tune to a live wire," while writer Ralph McLean of the BBC agreed that "it was arguably the first folk rock tune," calling it "a revolutionary single" after which "the face of modern music was changed forever."

The Animals' version transposes the narrative of the song from the point of view of a woman led into a life of degradation, to that of a male, whose father was now a gambler and drunkard, as opposed to the sweetheart in earlier versions.

The Animals had begun featuring their arrangement of "House of the Rising Sun" during a joint concert tour with Chuck Berry, using it as their closing number to differentiate themselves from acts which always closed with straight rockers. It got a tremendous reaction from the audience, convincing initially reluctant producer Mickie Most that it had hit potential, and between tour stops the group went to a small recording studio on Kingsway in London to capture it.

Recorded in just one take on 18 May 1964, it started with a famous electric guitar A minor chord arpeggio by Hilton Valentine. The performance took off with Eric Burdon's lead vocal, which has been variously described as "howling", "soulful", and "deep and gravelly as the north-east English coal town of Newcastle that spawned him." Finally, Alan Price's pulsating organ part completed the sound (see Vox Continental). Burdon later said, "We were looking for a song that would grab people's attention, and they succeeded: "House of the Rising Sun" was a true trans-Atlantic hit, topping both the UK pop singles chart (in July of 1964) and the U.S. pop singles chart (in September, when it became the first British Invasion number one unconnected with The Beatles); it was the group's breakthrough hit in both countries and became their signature song. The song was also a hit in a number of other countries.

The Animals' rendition of the song is recognized as one of the classic outputs of the British Invasion. Writer Lester Bangs labelled it "a brilliant rearrangement" and "a new standard rendition of an old standard composition." It ranked number 122 on Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. It is also one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The RIAA placed it as number 240 on their Songs of the Century list. In 1999 it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. And besides critical acclaim, it has long since become a staple of oldies and classic rock radio formats. A 2005 Five poll ranked it as Britons' fourth favourite number one song of all time.

As recorded, "House of the Rising Sun" ran four and a half minutes, regarded as far too long for a pop single at the time. Producer Most, who otherwise minimized his role on this occasion — "Everything was in the right place ... It only took 15 minutes to make so I can't take much credit for the production" — nonetheless was now a believer and declared it as a single at its full length, saying "We're in a microgroove world now, we will release it."

In the United States, though, the original single (MGM 13264) was a 2:58 version that sounded as if it had been hastily edited. The MGM Golden Circle reissue (KGC 179) featured the unedited 4:29 version, although the label shows the edited playing time of 2:58. The edited version was included on the group's 1964 U.S. debut album The Animals, while the full version was later included on their best-selling 1966 U.S. greatest hits album The Best of The Animals.

"House of the Rising Sun" was not included on any of the group's British albums. Rather, it was reissued as a single twice in subsequent decades, charting both times: to number 25 in 1972, and to number 11 in 1982.

However, the arranging credit went only to Alan Price, and not to the whole band as many have felt was deserved. According to Burdon, this was simply because there was insufficient room to name all five band members on the record label, and Alan Price's name was first alphabetically. However, this meant that only Price received songwriter's royalties for the hit, a fact that has caused bitterness ever since, especially with Valentine.

Curiously there was a 'Rising Sun' colliery in Wallsend, near Newcastle upon Tyne (where The Animals formed) In 1969 it was the last mine in the area to close, and as the regional politics of period in which "House of the Rising Sun" was recorded focused on the wane of the coal industry, this pit is likely to have been known to the band. Whether this influenced their decision to cover a traditional North American folk song is not known.

Frijid Pink version

The only rendition other than The Animals' to become a hit came in early 1970, when Detroit-based Frijid Pink released their take on the song. Sometimes described as done in psychedelic music style, Pink's rendition is actually more aligned with the proto-metal/proto-punk sound of fellow contemporaneous Detroit acts MC5 and The Stooges. The Frijid Pink version of the song is in 4/4 time signature rather than the usual 6/8. The performance was driven by Gary Ray Thompson's distorted guitar with fuzz and wah wah effects, set against frenetic drumming from Richard Stevers. Lead singer Kelly Green's vocal phrasing almost exactly matched Eric Burdon's.

Regardless of its merits, the recording was indeed again a trans-Atlantic success, reaching number 7 on the U.S. pop singles chart, number 4 on the UK Singles Chart, and number 3 in Canada. It was awarded gold record status in the U.S. in May 1970 for selling a million copies. It also hit number one in a number of European countries, including West Germany and Norway. It would be Frijid Pink's only top ten hit.

The real house

Various places in New Orleans, Louisiana have been proposed as the inspiration for the song, with varying plausibility. The phrase "House of the Rising Sun" is often understood as a euphemism for a brothel, but it is not known whether or not the house described in the lyrics was an actual or fictitious place. One theory speculated the song is about a daughter who killed her father, an alcoholic gambler who had beaten his wife. Therefore, the House of the Rising Sun may be a jail-house, from where you are the first person to see the sun rise. Because the song was often sung by women, another theory is that the House of the Rising Sun was where prostitutes were detained while they were treated for syphillis. Since cures with mercury were ineffective, going back was very likely.

Only two candidates have historical documentation as using the name "Rising Sun", both having listings in old period city directories. The first was a small short-lived hotel on Conti Street in the French Quarter in the 1820s. It burned down in 1822. An excavation and document search in early 2005 found evidence supporting this claim, including an advertisement with language that may have euphemistically indicated prostitution. An unusually large number of pots of rouge and cosmetics were found by archaeologists at the site.

The second possibility was a late 19th century "Rising Sun Hall" on the riverfront of the uptown Carrollton neighborhood, which seems to have been a building owned and used for meetings of a Social Aid & Pleasure Club, commonly rented out for dances and functions. Definite links to gambling or prostitution, if any, are undocumented for either of these buildings, neither of which still exist.

Another claim is that The House of the Rising Sun actually existed between 1862 and about 1874 and was run by a Madam Marianne LeSoleil Levant whose name translates from French as "the rising sun". Bizarre New Orleans, a guide book on New Orleans, asserts that the real house was at 1614 Esplanade Avenue between 1862 and 1874 and was purportedly named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant.

It is also possible that the "House of the Rising Sun" is a metaphor for either the slave pens of the plantation, the plantation house, or the plantation itself, which were the subjects and themes of many traditional blues songs. Dave van Ronk claimed in his autobiography that he had seen pictures of the old New Orleans Prison for Women, the entrance to which was decorated with a rising sun design. He considered this proof that the House of the Rising Sun had been a nickname for the prison.

Frequent claims are also made by French Quarter tour guides that the 'House of the Rising Sun' alludes to a brothel which affluent families (specifically male relatives) would encourage their young men to visit before marriage, providing experience in marital associations prior to taking a wife, and serving as a rite of passage and assertion of masculinity. For example, in the novel Gone with the Wind, the character of Scarlett made reference to the inexperience that her first husband demonstrated on their wedding night and the subsequent embarrassment for the couple in the marriage bed. For affluent Southern families, social norms of the time regarding monogamy strongly favored men, as women were considered 'tainted' if they engaged in sexual relations before marriage. Adultery on the part of married woman would certainly result in public shame, loss of status, and often abandonment or worse punishment by the husband. However, gentlemen were somewhat expected to take mistresses of a lower status (see Plaçage) and to be 'experienced' before marriage, though this expectation clashed with accepted social mores. Theoretically, with a young man's time in 'training' at a brothel complete, many of the associations with prostitutes at the establishment could go awry. Though a suitable wife may have been selected and a marriage made, the husband might still continue to frequent a brothel many times thereafter, considered not only 'sinful', but especially frowned upon if not carried out in a discreet manner.

Although it is apparent through the remainder of the lyrics that the man singing this song is not an affluent man by birth but rather the son of a tailor, given an historical context the wording is nevertheless suggestive that an establishment of such a nature and purpose could have existed for at least some period of time. Also, considering the narrator's mention of himself as a gambler, it should be noted that brothels in New Orleans sometimes served as gathering places for gambling, especially for customers passing the time until it was their 'turn' with the girl of their choice.

The gender of the singer is flexible. Earlier versions of the song are often sung from the female perspective, a woman who followed a drunk or a gambler to New Orleans and became a prostitute in the House of the Rising Sun (or, depending on one's interpretation, an inmate in a prison of the same name), such as in Joan Baez's version on her self-titled 1960 debut album. The Animals version was sung from a perspective of a male, warning about gambling and drinking. Bob Dylan's 1962 version and Shawn Mullins' recent covered version on his album "9th Ward Pickin' Parlor" is sung from the female perspective.

Not everyone, however, believes that the house even existed at all. Quoted on the BBC's 'h2g2' database, Pamela D. Arceneaux, a research librarian working at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans is quoted as saying: "I have made a study of the history of prostitution in New Orleans and have often confronted the perennial question, 'Where is the House of the Rising Sun?' without finding a satisfactory answer. Although it is generally assumed that the singer is referring to a brothel, there is actually nothing in the lyrics that indicate that the 'house' is a brothel. Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics."

References

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