What It All Means

I first encountered Bob Dylan in 1964 when I was asked to perform Blowin’ In The Wind at an Elks dinner in Ballard, California. I was a tender 12 at the time and I’d actually been asked to perform two songs that night. The other was If I Had A Hammer. I’d heard that song the year before on the popular TV show, Hootenanny! but I’d never heard Blowin’. I loved that show. I’d watched Sing Along With Mitch and played albums by Joe and Eddie, the Kingston TrioOdetta and many others since I was a kid so when Hootenanny! aired, I was hooked. It was in fact the popular single, Walk Right In by the Rooftop Singers that fired my obsession with the 12-string guitar so I guess you can say I’m a folkie from way back.

Someone pointed me to Bob Dylan so that I could learn Blowin’ In The Wind for that gig, but I think I learned it from the cover by Peter, Paul & Mary. I liked the song. I thought it was pretty, but it was the lyrics that grabbed me. It sounded like an anthem. It was saying something important, a message I’d heard many times before, but this time it was delivered in a way that was like a bullet in the brain. I had to find the original recording.

When I brought home The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and tore off the cellophane wrapping, I had no idea my life was about to change and that it would continue to change and evolve for the entire time I’d walk this planet. I think I’d been prepared, though. I think all of those folksingers before had been leading me up that path, some gently—the Kingston Trio, for instance—and some not so gently, like Odetta. On that afternoon Dylan became a lifelong mentor. Oh, he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t even know I exist, but his work affected me like it has affected so many other songwriters. It’s safe to say I don’t where the hell I’d be musically if he hadn’t happened. I don’t know where music would be.

This Photoshopped image, taken from Dylan’s 1965 Subterranean Homesick Blues video, has always pissed me off. How many people have I spoken to about Dylan whose first reaction was, “He can’t sing”? There are a lot of popular artists—always have been—who can’t sing. Most popular music through the years hasn’t been moored to an ability to croon like Sinatra or Caruso so why have these people assigned Dylan as their poster child?

Something else threatens them. It’s not that he can’t sing, it’s that they don’t understand what he’s singing about and why he sings like he does, and they don’t want to investigate, even passively, by simply listening. Taking time to understand anything is nothing but work for lazy thinkers. When they run into something they don’t get any deeper than the surface level, instead of exploring it, they attack it. They mock and ridicule because it’s easy. At a very young age I learned that when someone made fun of something or someone, they were only revealing their lack of curiosity. And if intelligence is anything, it’s curiosity. If they sat down, turned off their phones and listened to Dylan they’d discover he was performing rap back when their grandparents were dancing to the music of Motown, Surf, and the British Invasion.

This being said, I already know that many of you won’t take the time to listen to the video below. That’s ok. I’m not trying to make converts, I’m sharing something with the curious, the active thinkers, the people who like to understand things. Even those of you who stay might be tempted to stop listening when Dylan starts talking about Moby Dick, but I urge to you hang in there. It’s a trip worth taking and in true Dylan fashion, his voice with its unique rhythms and meters becomes almost hypnotic. Please, please, turn off the TV, silence your phone and get rid of possible distractions. This is not background, this is not passive listening. You will have to listen and think.

P.S. The title of this post will mean nothing to you unless you listen to the video.

Many thanks to Wade Johnson and Pat Flynn for introducing me to this.

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Location, Location #2: House of the Rising Sun

Laura Santiago

There is a house in New Orleans,
They call the Rising Sun;
It’s been the ruin of many poor girl,
And me, O God, for one.
If I had listened what mama said,
I’d’a’ be at home today;
Being so young and foolish,
Let a rambler lead me astray.

Go tell my baby sister,
Never to do like I have done;
To shun that house in New Orleans,
They call the Rising Sun.
My mother she’s a tailor,
She sold those new blue jeans;
My sweetheart he’s a drunkard, Lord, Lord,
Drinks down in New Orleans.

The only thing a drunkard needs,
Is a suitcase and a trunk;
The only time he’s satisfied,
Is when he’s on a drunk.
Fills his glasses to the brim,
Passes them around;
The only pleasure he gets out of life,
Is hoboin’ from town to town.

One foot is on the platform,
And the other is on the train;
I’m going back to New Orleans,
To wear that ball and chain.
Going back to New Orleans,
My race is almost run;
Going back to spend the rest of my life,
Beneath that Rising Sun.


If you were a teen in the Sixties, just the title of this song brings that circular, A-minor, electric guitar intro of the Animals‘ recording to your mind. Considering the impact of the British Invasion at the time, with its upbeat songs about holding hands and carrying your girlfriend’s books after school, you probably thought it was kind of a weird song when you first heard it on your favorite AM radio station in 1964. But you liked it, and if you were a budding guitarist (like me), you grabbed your instrument and set about learning how to play it. Even now, it’s hard to find an earlier folk version of the song on YouTube, except for Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. What few of us knew in our youth was that House of the Rising Sun is a very old song, indeed. Its roots have been traced as far back as 18th century England, its melody associated with several British folk songs including Little Musgrave and Lady Bernard or some other variation on that title. One lyric in a bawdy English folk song is,

“If you go to Lowestoft,
And ask for the Rising Sun,
There you’ll find two old whores,
And my old woman’s one.”

As for what the House was, well, that’s open for a lot of speculation. Two British folk songs name Rising Sun as brothels; I’ve read that the physical image of a rising sun is an old symbol for prostitution in England which carried over to America. Hotels that masked as brothels often had a rising sun molded into the plaster or carved into the woodwork above their front doors. And it’s important to note that until about 1900 this song was usually sung by women.


Locations:

535-537 Conti St., New Orleans: Evidence surfaced in 2005, from excavation and research, that unearthed an ad for this house in the French Quarter that alluded to prostitution, as well as an unusually large number of cosmetics. Opening in 1808, it burned down in 1822.

826-830 Louis St., New Orleans: Offbeat, a New Orleans magazine, places the second house here between the years of 1862-1864. The building was supposedly named after its madam, Marianne LeSolei Levant. Her surname translates to “The Rising Sun,” but this begs the question, which came first?

Rising Sun Hall: On the riverfront in the uptown Carrollton neaighborhood during the late 19th Century, meetings of a Social Aid and Pleasure Club were held, as well as dances and functions.

New Orleans Prison for WomenDave van Ronk wrote in his autobiography that he had seen photos of the old prison, and over the entrance he saw a design of a Rising Sun. This caused some people to believe that the ballad is about a young girl who goes to prison. Others think she ended up as a lady of the night.

Esplanade Avenue: A house in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans has at times been thought to be the House.

Slave Quarters: In some versions of the song, the House is a metaphor for the slave quarters of a plantation, the plantation house, or the plantation itself, which were the subjects and themes of many traditional blues songs. [Wikipedia]

“Was The House a brothel? A tuberculosis hospital?
Slave quarters on a plantation?
An antebellum syphilis clinic for prostitutes?
(Really, that’s an actual theory!)
The lyrics have been changed so much over the years,
it’s really hard to tell.”

Liz Genest Smith


I’d like to go out on a limb here and tell you what I get from the lyrics above. A young girl falls for a smooth talking young man with a drinking and gambling problem. Seducing her from her mother and her home, he takes her to New Orleans. Somewhere during their relationship, probably after a bad night of gambling, he forces her into prostitution at one of his favorite brothels, The Rising Sun, to generate money to support his habits. While he’s away on a bender she attempts to find her way back home, but is caught by her boyfriend and must face returning to the “ball and chain” of prostitution. That’s my take, anyway. But conjectures and opinions about House of the Rising Sun are as numerous as recorded versions of it, and the web is loaded with both so I’m afraid I can’t give you a definitive answer. No one can, but at least the next time you hear the Animals’ foreboding guitar riff on your car stereo you’ll have a little more to think about.

535-537 Conti St.
535-537 Conti St., New Orleans
826-828 St. Louis St.
826-828 St. Louis St., New Orleans
esplanade avenue
Esplanade Ave., New Orleans c. 1900

And at last, here’s a video of the sublime Odetta singing her unique version of House of the Rising Sun.

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Art Credit: Laura Santiago

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