Monday, January 21, 2008

Chasing the Rising Sun

Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song
By Ted Anthony
Simon & Schuster

Eric Burdon of the Animals did not write “The House of the Rising Sun.” Hopefully, you already knew that. Neither did Lead Belly, Josh White, Nina Simone, or the multitude of recording artists who have put their personal stamps on the song, (or at least took a stab at it). The song about the archetypal bordello in New Orleans (some still consider it a prison), claims a special place in the collective cultural consciousness. It was powerful enough to draw author Ted Anthony into his own grail quest for the source of the traditional song, a pursuit he documents in Chasing the Rising Sun.

The actual genesis of “Rising Sun” remains obscure, despite Anthony’s sleuthing through “The Village,” his metaphor for the Ozarks, Piedmonts, and Appalachian hills and hollows where: “magic and music blend—British balladry, old-time hymnody, early Tin Pan Alley song-writing, and West African field hollers” would form the roots of country music and co-mingle with the blues. (p. 11) Anthony uses terms like “malleability” to describe the song, as it makes its way from Appalachia to the British folk-rock boom, via song-hunter Alan Lomax. For instance, Anthony describes Lead Belly’s rendition, sounding worlds removed from the Animals’ best known version:

“The earliest recording I can find [of Lead Belly] dates to February 1944 and sounds like a ghost, imported straight from a raucous barrelhouse in the last decade of the 1800s. No feeling of lament here; the guitar is upbeat and insolent and teases slyly as it opens the song.” (p. 76)

One intriguing version even put the Rising Sun in Brooklyn and explicitly links it with the clap—let’s hear that BK pride. Anthony puts it nicely into context:

“No subtlety there. No metaphor. No euphemistic mention of ‘hell’s eternal brink.’ It’s pretty straightforward: Here’s the Rising Sun, and here’s gonorrhea.” (p. 120)

While Chasing belongs to the relatively new genre of song biography, joining the ranks of books like David Margolick’s Strange Fruit, Anthony’s authorial voice is always very much at the forefront. At times that works, as when he meets and befriends the surviving family of Georgia Turner, the Middlesboro, Kentucky teenager who first sang the song for Lomax in 1937. Sometimes though, Anthony shows a tendency for getting up on the soapbox, as when he complains of: “the feeling of losing my own story, of being sucked up by corporate narratives and becoming a cog in the churning machine of story-driven capitalism that has consumed our country.” (p. 123)

Yikes, that is preachy. It is part of a distracting account of self-described blue-stater Anthony’s visit to the red state amusement park Silver Dollar City. It should have been cut, as it does a disservice to Anthony, who otherwise displays great sensitivity for the residents of “The Village” and the offensive “hillbilly” stereotypes they have been saddled under.

Chasing’s best asset is the song itself, which conjures up hazy imagery that never fails to intrigue, and keeps popping up Zelig-like in the most unlikely corners. Recent archeological discoveries that suggest there may have actually been a house in New Orleans they called the Rising Sun only add to the interest. Anthony reprints a tantalizingly vague advertisement in an 1821 New Orleans newspaper which assures patrons: “Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants. The bar will be supplied with genuine good Liquors.” (p. 222)

Anthony is up-front with readers from the beginning that he was unable to trace “Rising Sun” to its original source. Yet somehow reading his history, we come to want the Rising Sun to exist somewhere out of time: a Xanadu, a stately pleasure dome, where Stagger Lee, Tom Dooley, and the giant and the dwarf from Twin Peaks hobnob with all manner of exotic women of the night. (New Orleans is surely as good as any city to host such an establishment.)

Anthony probably should have stepped back from his narrative more, intruding only during moments of real drama, as when he plays the Lomax recording for Turner’s family. Still he deserves credit for making his song obsession infectious and tracking down some fascinating leads into under-explored realms of musical history.