Pete's Blog

House of the Rising Sun

I've been reading a book called "Chasing the Rising Sun" by Ted Anthony. It documents the various versions of the old folk song "House of the Rising Sun" from its earliest commercial recordings, by Clarence Ashley and the Callahan Brothers, through Alan Lomax's various Library of Congress recordings; commercial folk records by Josh White, Bob Dylan, and others; the Animals' 1964 rock hit; and the many subsequent records made since then. The book itself has left me underwhelmed. Aside from whatever interest there may be in watching Anthony do his research there isn't much there there. But it has had one surprisingly powerful benefit: I've started singing the song again. My take on the tune comes most strongly, I would guess, from Dave Van Ronk's, widely considered the definitive "folk" version of the early '60s. It uses the minor key melody (the first examples are in a major key) and Van Ronk's use of a descending bass line rather than the more familiar ascending line the Animals popularized. It's a strong piece of material and sits in my voice well, but what I like best about it is that singing it brings me closer to Dave, who was my friend. Dave died in 2002 and, for reasons I won't get into, I was not able to attend his funeral. This has always rankled. Dave was a great teacher, full of valuable insight even when he was taking me to task. Hey, being told by Dave Van Ronk that you drink too much is something of an honor. I'm sober now and in his last years so was Dave, but singing "It's one foot on the platform and another foot on the train" I can smell the coal dust Dave talked about in the air at the Gaslight Coffeehouse on MacDougal Street (the place began as a coal scuttle and was never properly cleaned) and hear the rattle of old expresso machines. Thanks, Dave.

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