Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song

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9780743278980: Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song

Chasing the Rising Sun is the story of an American musical journey told by a prize-winning writer who traced one song in its many incarnations as it was carried across the world by some of the most famous singers of the twentieth century.

Most people know the song "House of the Rising Sun" as 1960s rock by the British Invasion group the Animals, a ballad about a place in New Orleans -- a whorehouse or a prison or gambling joint that's been the ruin of many poor girls or boys. Bob Dylan did a version and Frijid Pink cut a hard-rocking rendition. But that barely scratches the surface; few songs have traveled a journey as intricate as "House of the Rising Sun."

The rise of the song in this country and the launch of its world travels can be traced to Georgia Turner, a poor, sixteen-year-old daughter of a miner living in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in 1937 when the young folk-music collector Alan Lomax, on a trip collecting field recordings, captured her voice singing "The Rising Sun Blues." Lomax deposited the song in the Library of Congress and included it in the 1941 book Our Singing Country. In short order, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Josh White learned the song and each recorded it. From there it began to move to the planet's farthest corners. Today, hundreds of artists have recorded "House of the Rising Sun," and it can be heard in the most diverse of places -- Chinese karaoke bars, Gatorade ads, and as a ring tone on cell phones.

Anthony began his search in New Orleans, where he met Eric Burdon of the Animals. He traveled to the Appalachians -- to eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and western North Carolina -- to scour the mountains for the song's beginnings. He found Homer Callahan, who learned it in the mountains during a corn shucking; he discovered connections to Clarence "Tom" Ashley, who traveled as a performer in a 1920s medicine show. He went to Daisy, Kentucky, to visit the family of the late high-lonesome singer Roscoe Holcomb, and finally back to Bourbon Street to see if there really was a House of the Rising Sun. He interviewed scores of singers who performed the song. Through his own journey he discovered how American traditions survived and prospered -- and how a piece of culture moves through the modern world, propelled by technology and globalization and recorded sound.

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About the Author:

Ted Anthony joined the Associated Press in 1992. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by the AP in 1998 and 2001 and won the National Headliner Award for feature writing in 2001. He was the AP news editor in China from 2002 to 2004. Anthony is the editor of asap, a multimedia news service produced by the AP. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue: The Moment

I met a girl who sang the blues.

-- Don McLean, "American Pie"

Middlesboro, Kentucky

September 1937

She is blond, pretty, barely sixteen, too young to be singing the blues. But she does, all the time. After all, Middlesboro is a rough town these days, and every day is a struggle. Sometimes, when the songs are sad, she even cries along with them.

One song is her signature -- a sad tune, weighed down with the ballast of misery, moist with the tears of bad choices, loved ones, and home left behind, a life inching balefully toward its end. If I had listened to what Mama said, I'd have been at home today.

The girl has a strong, beautiful voice, and she sings the song wherever she goes -- around the neighborhood, hanging the wash outside her family's wooden shack, and especially when folks gather to play some harmonica, pick some banjo and forget about the day spent underground in the coal mines. Their voices echo across the hillside east of town. Sometimes the music from the poor cabins and stoops reaches the railroad tracks just a few yards away -- the ones that shepherd the steam-belching trains that carry coal, people, and a tantalizing invitation: There are other places to claim, other choices to be made, other destinies to be fulfilled. Rounders and ramblers and gamblers and hoboes and wayfaring strangers and unfortunate rakes hurtling toward siren-song cities that shine atop distant plateaus at the end of the line. Nashville. Birmingham. Meridian. Atlanta. New Orleans. The road to possibility, rendered in steel and steam and thunder. Even if you can't hop aboard, you can dream. One foot on the platform, the other one on the train.

Everyone in the neighborhood knows her song is old, though no one seems sure where it comes from. They just know that Georgie Turner sings it, and they like it when she does. Music offers a sliver of respite from the blackness of the mines and the meanness of the Depression, which still seems to be gobbling up Middlesboro even as it begins to ebb in other places.

One day, a stranger shows up from back East. He is a young man in an old car weighed down by an enormous, unfamiliar machine. Even when he rolls up his sleeves and dirties his hands in the machinery, you can tell he's different -- smooth and energetic and glib, cigarette occasionally dangling from the corner of his mouth, a dashing twenty-two-year-old who'll never be stuck, who goes from town to town sampling the world with the confidence of someone certain he'll be able to move on to the next challenge. He is trolling Kentucky's mountains with his bulky contraption to record people singing their songs. He is finding himself to be a popularizer, a fan of the folk, a blend of the academy and the frontier, a Southerner and a Northerner in one package. He's the kind of man who drives over bumpy dirt roads talking like Harvard and Yale: "Here the mountains have formed culture eddies where one can find the music of the American pioneer, in all degrees of purity -- in some isolated spots, little affected by nearly a hundred years of change in the 'outland'; in others acquiring new vitality in the mouths of the miners."

The man will tell you that this place is part of heaven. Like his daddy, he loves the South. Ever since the first Turners crossed the Cumberland Gap in Daniel Boone's era and settled in the lush hills around Pine Mountain, this has been, to songcatchers from the outland, one of those places -- where the Scotch-Irish ballad tradition survives unfettered, and people still sing on their front porches, isolated from the encroaching world of cities and recorded sound and national mass culture. But the man, Alan Lomax, is smart: He works for the Library of Congress and is conducting this quest like his father before him. He knows the gold of song collecting comes from two treasure chests: the untouched English balladry of centuries ago and the newer, earthier songs of American experience. His ears are open to both, and he hears fascinating things as he winds through Harlan, Bell, and Clay counties: songs from the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s, all blending into something new. Song fragments carried like viruses by modern vectors -- trains and cars and itinerant miners who infect new people with a verse here, a verse there, pressed into service to make a point, evoke a memory, remember a moment.

Middlesboro is fertile proving ground for this; old songs are coming down from the hills and, in the hands of visitors and miners, mutating and becoming something new. Even phonograph records are appearing, purchased by the fortunates who have electricity and some spending money. You might get a flash of recognition if you mentioned the name Roy Acuff: He's from the Smokies just over Cumberland Mountain in eastern Tennessee, and he's about to make a name for himself at the Grand Ole Opry. The outside world is changing a way of isolated living that is generations old, and Lomax is determined to capture the moment before the rising monoculture shoves it all out of the way.

He has written ahead to announce his appearance; after all, in these parts of the world, a smooth city man who uses big words -- even one born in Texas -- needs a sponsor or two, just to keep things from getting ugly. Through his contacts in Washington and New York City, he has arranged to stop in -- on Wednesday, September 15, 1937 -- at the house of a man named Tillman Cadle, who lives by the railroad tracks in a desperately poor part of Middlesboro called Noetown. Few houses here have electricity; most are rickety wooden shacks. Cadle has invited some neighbors to sing for the the man and his machine. Among them is Mary Mast Turner -- Mary Gill, they call her -- a strict Baptist, a middle-aged housewife who lives nearby in an old log cabin with no front porch and a kitchen stove to heat the entire family. With her, she brings her teenage daughter Georgia.

Lomax unloads his Presto "reproducer," which runs on a big, heavy battery. He sets it up in Cadle's house alongside a stack of blank acetate discs upon which the machine will etch the grooves that capture the voices he craves. He wants to get things right on the first take because he's stingy about the discs; he keeps running out of them and has to send back to Washington for money to buy more.

The girl and her mother arrive. They are joined by Cadle's nephew, Edward Hunter, who, though barely a teenager, knows his way around a harmonica. When the girl's turn comes, she leans in (you have to lean in close with these Presto machines, or they won't pick up your voice) and opens her mouth. Then, on a blues scale, in a vigorous, nasal voice that resonates beyond her years, she sings. Georgia Bell Turner sings for her mother, for Tillman Cadle and Ed Hunter, for Alan Lomax, and for forever.

Copyright © 2007 by Edward Mason Anthony IV

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