For a supposedly isolated region, Appalachia has a history that pops up in surprising places.
Last Sunday we had a guest singer at our church who performed a great rendition of “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” I’d never heard anyone combine these two songs before, but it was hauntingly effective. The only version of “House of the Rising Sun” I’d ever heard was the one performed by the Animals.
Music buffs have driven themselves nuts while trying to determine whether the song refers to an actual place in New Orleans, whether a brothel or a prison. Of more immediate interest to us here is not the identity of the House of the Rising Sun, but the provenance of the song itself. Long before the Animals popularized their version—and before Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Woodie Guthrie recorded theirs—the tune was circulating in the mountains of Appalachia, and thereby hangs an unexpected tale.
In 1937, folklorist Alan Lomax visited the southeastern Kentucky town of Middlesboro on the state’s border with Tennessee and Virginia. Lomax and his wife were collecting traditional songs for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture. While in Middlesboro, he captured the voice of sixteen-year-old Georgia Turner, daughter of a local coal miner, singing a song called “Rising Sun Blues.” Here’s the recording:
Lomax recorded a couple of other versions of the same song on that collecting expedition, but Georgia Turner’s was the one that made an impression. He credited Turner as the song’s writer when he included it in a 1941 compilation, even though a few folk recordings of it were already floating around. Once Georgia Turner’s version appeared in Lomax’s collection, the song took on a life of its own, with various performers continuing to tweak it and add their own variations over the years. The Animals’ 1964 version is the canonical one, of course, but until Lomax came along and picked it up in Middlesboro, it was just another obscure folk tune.
The reason I think this is so cool is because Middlesboro, KY is only about twelve miles from my hometown, so I’ve spent a lot of time there. In fact, the church of which I’m a member—the same church where I heard “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of the song Georgia Turner helped make famous—is in Middlesboro. I knew none of this until Sunday, when hearing it in the morning service prompted me to go poking around online. I’d always assumed “House of the Rising Sun” originated with the Animals.
Back in 2000 the AP ran a story on the song’s complicated history and the young Kentucky girl who played such a large role in it:
“Georgie, she’s the first one I ever heard sing it,” says Ed Hunter, who played harmonica at that 1937 session in Middlesboro. Still sure-footed at 78, he has outlived her by three decades and lives 200 yards from where her family’s home once stood. “Where she got it, I don’t know,” he says. “There weren’t many visitors, and she didn’t go nowhere.”
Middlesboro then was even more isolated than today, nearly 50 miles of winding roads from the nearest interstate highway. Tucked into rugged mountains just west of the Cumberland Gap, where thousands came west in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town was laid out by English iron-ore speculators. But even before that, mountaineers of English, Scots and Irish stock, including some Turners, built lives in the hills and, in their isolation, preserved a rich tradition of music and balladry.
Out of this, it seems, “Rising Sun Blues” – aka “House in New Orleans” or even “Rising Sun Dance Hall” – bubbled up.
So next time you hear this hit made famous by a British band, you can thank a teenage miner’s daughter from a small town in Appalachia for doing her part.