I love this story.
In September of 1937, Alan Lomax and his wife, Elizabeth, took a song-collecting trip through the mountains of Kentucky.
Alan had recently been appointed as the Assistant in Charge of the Archive of Folk Song of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Alan and Elizabeth believed that the Kentucky mountains harbored a rich, generations-old heritage of Elizabethan song that was quickly disappearing and needed to be documented and preserved. The Library provided the couple with some money; a portable, disc-cutting recording machine; and a large supply of big, black, blank acetate discs for their journey.
On September 15, 1937, Alan and Elizabeth arrived at the Middlesboro, Kentucky home of Tillman Cadle, a coal miner, union activist and lover of Folk music. Through their acquaintance with his wife, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle – a teacher at New York University – the Lomaxs had contacted Tillman in advance, asking for his help in finding local singers who would be willing to share their songs.
16-year-old Georgia Turner – a thin, pretty, blond-haired miner’s daughter – was among the group Tillman had gathered at his home that day.
When it was her turn, Georgia offered two songs for the Lomaxs to record. The first was called “Married Life Blues.” Ed Hunter, Georgia’s neighbor and fellow-teenager, joined in on harmonica. The second song that Georgia sang was her favorite and she sang it alone.
Her song began: “There is a house in New Orleans, they call the Risin’ Sun. It’s been the ruin of many poor girl and me, oh God, for one.”
Listen for yourself.
In 1941, Alan Lomax published a transcription (done by Ruth Crawford Seeger) of Georgia’s performance of “Rising Sun Blues” in a songbook called Our Singing Country. With it he wrote: “The fact that a few of the hot jazzmen who were in the business before the war have a distant singing acquaintance with this song, indicates that it is fairly old as Blues tunes go.”
(The Our Singing Country transcription of “Rising Sun Blues” includes verses from a version of the song by singer/guitarist Bert Martin that the Lomaxs collected on the same trip in Horse Creek, Kentucky on October 9, 1937.)
Alan Lomax also shared the song with his friends in the New York City Folk music community. In 1941, The Almanac Singers – Woody Guthrie, Lee Hayes, Millard Lampell and Pete Seeger – had recorded their version of the song under the title “The House of the Rising Sun.”
The Georgia Turner recording would not see the commercial light of day until 2003. It is the final track of the Rounder Record’s CD: Alan Lomax: Popular Songbook. The track is entitled “The House of the Rising Sun (Rising Sun Blues)” and, for some reason, the first two words, “There is…,” are not there.
In 2007, Ted Anthony published a book called Chasing The Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. In this fabulous book, Ted wrote about how he felt after the first time he heard Georgia Turner sing “Rising Sun Blues”: “I have just listened to The Moment – the nexus where generations of folk expression and oral tradition flowed in and the seeds of modern recorded, produced, marketed music flowed out. From the little cabin on September 15, 1937, we can chart a direct course into and out of the folk revival, to Bob Dylan and the definitive version recorded by the Animals – and everything beyond, across america and across oceans.”
P.S.: The first time I visited the American Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress, curator Todd Harvey showed me an archival storage binder containing the original heavy paper sleeves that once held and protected the original discs that Alan Lomax recorded onto during his 1937 song collecting trip through the mountains of Kentucky.
On the paper sleeves, in Alan Lomax’s own handwriting, were the names of the musicians, titles of the songs and pieces of music contained on each disc. But also, Alan had added personal observations about an individual performer or performance here and there among the listings.
After the listing for “Married Life Blues” (the song that Georgia sang with harmonica player Ed Hunter before she sang “Rising Sun Blues”), Alan Lomax had written: “She had a bad cold.”
If you’ve got another few minutes, go back and listen to that recording again.