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New Orleans Legend May Prove to Be Reputable

Times Staff Writer

A century ago, sung in the Appalachian hills from the point of view of a young and weary prostitute, it was about the pitfalls of sin. In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie turned it into an anthem to working-class America. In the 1960s, it was about daring sexuality.

At every turn, even as its words wrapped themselves around new eras and sensibilities, “House of the Rising Sun” remained a song of New Orleans. The simple folk song in a minor key always spoke to the sultry allure of this city from its first words, an opening line seared into one generation after another: “There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.”

No one has figured out -- and many have tried -- if the song depicts an actual bordello, and, if it does, where the real Rising Sun was. But a collection of pottery shards pulled recently from the ruddy soil of the French Quarter could prove to be the key that would unlock that beloved mystery.

This winter, a nonprofit organization called the Historic New Orleans Collection decided to expand. The organization, which runs a museum and research center, owned seven buildings in the heart of the French Quarter but needed another to serve as a vault. The group bought a one-level, ramshackle parking garage on Conti Street -- pronounced KAHNT-eye -- and announced plans to tear it down.

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The purchase was serendipitous. If just about anyone else had bought the lot, no study would have been conducted. But the organization -- dedicated, after all, to Louisiana history -- wanted to know the story behind its property. It asked a scholar at the University of Chicago and a New Orleans archeology firm called Earth Search to perform an excavation and document search.

“It was total luck,” said Ryan Gray, an Earth Search archeologist involved in the excavation. “Normally somebody would just dig right through the ramparts of the first layout of New Orleans. There are no provisions to guard against that.”

The archeologists, who plan to launch a more exhaustive study on Tuesday, found that a hotel called the Rising Sun appeared to have operated on the site from the early 1800s until 1822, when it burned to the ground.

In an 1821 advertisement from the newspaper La Gazette, a company called L.S. Hotchkiss explained that it had taken over the hotel but offered reassurance to customers: “No pain or expence [sic] will be spared by the new proprietors to give general satisfaction, and maintain the character of giving the best entertainment.”

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The next sentence: “Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants.” Similar language, Gray said, was used in old bordello advertisements to make it clear -- without explicitly saying so -- that extracurricular services were available.

Rising Sun has been a common business name here, however, for 200 years or so. There is a difference, the archeologists said, between finding a Rising Sun and finding the Rising Sun -- the one in the song.

About 2 1/2 feet below the surface, the researchers discovered a large number of liquor bottles. Alongside them was an unusually dense collection of rouge pots. The distinctive jars were painted sea green or blue and designed to hold makeup. They were heavier on the bottom than the top; that way a woman could sweep her fingertips across the rouge when she needed a touch-up without tipping the pot or stopping to pick it up.

The combination of liquor and evidence that there were lots of women who required much makeup was encouraging. Gray said it was also possible that fragments of bones lifted from the soil could be from exotic animals, though none had been found. Excavations of other houses of prostitution, he said, have shown that women who worked there frequently kept unusual pets, such as imported birds. Additional tests will be conducted in New Orleans on the bone fragments taken from the Conti Street site.

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Shannon Dawdy, the Chicago scholar who led the excavation, said she was not prepared to declare that she had found the Rising Sun. When she and her students conduct the more detailed study, among other things, they will look at census reports to see if a large number of women were reported as residents of the hotel and at police reports to see if there were complaints or incident reports at the address.

“The archeology is suggestive at this point,” Dawdy said. “I’m certainly excited just for the possibility. But I don’t want to add to the mythology of New Orleans unnecessarily until I know more. Everything needs a caveat for now.”

Many of those touched by the song are enchanted by it -- and by the possibility of an archeological breakthrough. Eric Burdon first heard it at a folk club when he was growing up in Newcastle, in northeastern England.

“I was fascinated with prostitution,” Burdon recalled last week in an interview from his home in Joshua Tree, Calif. “I thought it was incredible that women could have power over men to make them loose up their hard-earned money in exchange for sex.”

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In 1964, Burdon’s band, the Animals, recorded a rock-blues version that made it the first British group after the Beatles to have a top single in America. Burdon says that when he’s on tour, it is still the one song audiences feel they must hear. Over time, he has fallen for the song and the city it is about.

“I like to call New Orleans the cradle of the best of the worst,” Burdon said. “The place is reeking of death. It is as dark a town as it is light. The song is a musical icon, handed down from generation to generation. It never seems to go away, and it’s become a great mystery. It’s cool.”

Burdon, however, is among those who are skeptical of the potential new find. So are some tour guides in New Orleans. Several have long pointed to a site on nearby St. Louis Street as the location of the Rising Sun, based mostly on murky reports that a madam named Marianne LeSoleil Levant once lived there. Her last name translated loosely to “Rising Sun.”

Gray, the archeologist, said he understood the reluctance.

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“There are so many buildings here that are so distinctive and romantic,” he said. “It’s not very glamorous to go by a parking garage and say: ‘This is the place!’ ”

Others say they think the song was never about a real place. The conflicting opinions are due to the fact that the song’s origin, like that of many folk songs, is unknown.

Dozens of recordings have been made over the years, in musical genres as varied as gospel and zydeco, by performers as varied as Leadbelly and Dolly Parton. Music historians say its meaning, like that of many great folk songs, seemed to change with time. It was traditionally seen as a warning to those who might consider falling into a life of sin. But the Animals turned its narrator into a man, and although the song remained a melancholy dirge, it took on new undertones of sexuality that fit the times.

The first known recording of the song was made in 1937, when a music historian named Alan Lomax learned it from a miner’s daughter in Kentucky. It was then known as the “Rising Sun Blues.”

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Historians say many folk songs at the time -- at least their melodies -- came from England, Scotland or Ireland.

Burdon said he thought the chord sequence was “certainly not American” and that its key suggested it was derivative of a British church hymn.

“Nothing is what it seems,” he said. “The more we know, the older things get.”

Today, there is a Rising Sun in New Orleans -- the House of the Rising Sun Bed & Breakfast in Algiers, across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter.

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Owners Kevin and Wendy Herridge named their inn, which is inside a very pink house, after the song or, more specifically, after the myth surrounding the song.

The couple have collected dozens of recorded versions, and brothel memorabilia hangs on the walls, including a sign warning women to “do your soliciting discreetly.”

The name attracts quite a bit of attention, said Kevin Herridge. A man from Morocco recently e-mailed because he was learning the guitar and -- like many aspiring guitarists -- wanted to learn the famous arpeggios that open the Animals’ version.

“But it can backfire too,” Herridge said. “Once in a while people think we are a house of ill repute. They will call up and say, ‘What is your specialty?’ I say, ‘Well, we do a nice continental breakfast. It’s very healthy.’ They say: ‘You know what I mean.’ And I have to tell them that they’ve got the wrong idea.”

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A London native and music historian who moved to New Orleans in 1994, Herridge said he also thought the song had its roots in England. There, he says, many small towns still have pubs called the Rising Sun -- clean ones that sell pints and the occasional sandwich.

Some in England sing a folk song that begins with: “There is a house in Lowestoft,” a reference to a town in the Suffolk region. The song, which doesn’t appear to have ever been recorded, is intended to be humorous. Lowestoft is a sleepy fishing village -- “so it probably wasn’t there either,” Herridge said with a laugh.

Herridge said he thought that 18th and 19th century folk singers in Appalachian regions gave “House of the Rising Sun” a New Orleans flavor because they considered the city an emblem of sin. If he’s right, the brothel that has been the “ruin of many a poor girl” never existed -- which means the search could go on forever.

That’s just as it should be, he said.

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“Our great-great-grandchildren will still be talking about it,” he said. “People here like it unsolved. It’s good for the imagination.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Lyrics: Traditional Versus Modern

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The origins of the folk song “House of the Rising Sun” are unknown. The first known recording was in 1937 and has been recorded dozens of times since, most famously in 1964 by the British band the Animals.

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Traditional lyrics, as recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax:

There is a house in New Orleans

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they call the Rising Sun.

It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl,

and me, O God, for one.

If I had listened what Mamma said,

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I’d ‘a’ been at home today.

Being so young and foolish, poor boy,

let a rambler lead me astray.

Go tell my baby sister

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never do like I have done

to shun that house in New Orleans

they call the Rising Sun.

My mother she’s a tailor;

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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

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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,

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passes them around

only pleasure he gets out of life

is hoboin’ from town to town.

One foot is on the platform

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and the other one on the train.

I’m going back to New Orleans

to wear that ball and chain.

Going back to New Orleans,

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my race is almost run.

Going back to spend the rest of my days

beneath that Rising Sun.

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The Animals changed the narrator to a man:

There is a house in New Orleans

they call the Rising Sun.

And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy

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and God I know I’m one.

My mother was a tailor,

sewed my new blue jeans.

My father was a gambling man

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down in New Orleans.

Now the only thing a gambler needs

is a suitcase and a trunk.

And the only time he’s satisfied

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is when he’s on a drunk.

Oh mother, tell your children

not to do what I have done,

spend your lives in sin and misery

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in the House of the Rising Sun.

Well, I got one foot on the platform,

the other foot on the train.

I’m goin’ back to New Orleans

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to wear that ball and chain.


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