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GUEST,John Garst Origin or title of House of the Rising Sun? (184* d) RE: Origin or title of House of the Rising Sun? 16 Sep 05


Gus Meade refers to Gordon #925, which I have received in the mail today. 925 is from GORDON MANUSCRIPTS, Volume IV, Letters 651-950. It does not bear a date (I wonder if there is another part that I wasn't sent). Anyhow, it was contributed by William F. Burroughs (I think he may have been one of Gordon's repeat correspondents, although his name is not indexed in Kodish, Good Friends and Bad Enemies), who wrote:

I heard it from a southerner. He was of the type that generally call themselves: "One o' th' boys." He was not a crook, and not exactly a bum. His working activities were confined to "Pearl diving" and other restaurant jobs. This and an occasional strike at the dice kept him away from the Associated Charities. However he called on them at times. When he lacked the funds for railroad fare he simply stayed where he was until something "turned up." He "took his fun as he found it", and as a consequence had spent a total of something like five years in penal servitude on various misdemeanor charges.

THE RISING SUN

There is a house in New Orleans
It's called the Rising Sun
It's been the ruin of many poor girl,
Great God and I for one.

If I had of listened to what my mother said,
I'd be at home today,
But I was young and foolish poor girl
Let a rounder lead me astray.

Oh mother, mother, tell me why
You treat that rounder cold,
I'd rather be that rounder's wife
Than to wear your crown of gold.

Now tell my sister in Baltimore,
Not to do as I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans,
It's called the Rising Sun.


Since the Gordon Collection date range is 1921-1930, this is somewhere in there, and I imagine it to be ca 1925.

Previously, I had suspected that Georgia Turner's 1937 recording (for the Lomaxes) was the earliest "girl" version. That's clearly wrong - the present item makes it clear that "girl" versions were around by the 1920s, at least. I still think, however, that the "boy" versions are more coherent, and they date (by informant's recollections) to ca 1905, at least.

The present version is unusually coherent for a rounder/girl version, although it seems to me that the positions of verses 2 and 3 ought to be exchanged. Actually, I guess I would put the verses in the order 3-2-1-4. (I realize that singers often don't care about such things, particularly in a blues ballad, which is a reasonable classification for many versions of HORS.)

These verses do a reasonable job of integrating the "rounder" and "prostitute" themes. If the stanza "My mother is a tailor / She sews those new blue jeans / My sweetheart he's a gambler, Lord / Gambles down in New Orleans" had been included, the integration would have been even better. Even so, it still seems to me likely that the "rounder" and HORS stanzas once belonged to separate songs. Part of this belief on my part may be the recognition that stanzas 2 and 3 above have couterparts in other songs. I suppose that floaters have to originate somewhere, and they could have originated as part of HORS, but that seems to me unlikely. More likely, these stanzas were inspired by parallels that were adapted for HORS or a separate "rounder" song that became mixed with HORS.

That said, these considerations soften a bit my confidence that the "rounder" verses belong to a different original song and that "boy" versions of HORS are earlier than "girl" versions.

What do you think?

Another thought:

I suspect that HORS predates Storyville, the famous "legal" Red Light District of New Orleans, which became a legal entity on Jan. 1, 1898.

If the song were new in 1905, it would probably refer to a place in Storyville, which had then existed for 7 years, but we don't *know* that it was new in 1905. New Orleans prostitution existed from its beginning, at least from ca 1721, so by 1905 there had been nearly 200 years of prostitution there. Especially after the Civil War, prostitution flourished as madams and whores occupied houses all over the city ranging from crib places to lavish mansions. Storyville was the solution to the "problem" that anyone could find themselves living next door to a brothel. Before 1898, "houses" were anywhere and everywhere, with many being in the French Quarter.

The period ca 1880-1920 was an especially rich one for originating American ballads, and perhaps the 1890s was the richest decade within this period. Storyville existed only at the *end* of the 1890s, suggesting a likelihood that HORS predates it.

A stanza collected by Vance Randolph begins, "Beware the red light out in front." Al Rose states, "Except for the St. James Methodist Church, every building in the area (Storyville) was devoted to prostitution. Consequently it is very doubtful that red lights were used in Storyville. There was no need for them. In pre-Storyville times they might have been useful. If we suppose that Randolph's verse carries an historical implication, that implication could be that HORS predates Storyville.

Another, sort'a odd, thought:

There was at least one "house" in pre-Storyville New Orleans that featured Japanese whores. A verse collected by Randolph refers to "yellow gals." Japan is the "Land of the Rising Sun." This all hangs together to suggest that HORS could have been the place with Japanese women. (Unfortunately, mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons were, and are, also commonly called "yellow.")

Against this, it goes against the grain for me to imagine that HORS would refer to such a special, unusual house.

John


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