Roots music

Matthew Shaer is an editor at the Christian Science Monitor and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.

IN the fall of 1937, 22-year-old Alan Lomax loaded a 350-pound recording device, a carton of blank acetate discs and his wife into a jalopy and drove through Kentucky's Cumberland Gap to a mining town called Middlesboro. It was a grueling journey. The roads were unpaved and often eroded; the well-dressed and well-spoken Easterner was a magnet for attention -- welcome and otherwise. He ran out of discs and then ran out of money. In one village, he was threatened by a 60-year-old with a knife.

But Lomax was unshakable. Earlier that year, he had persuaded his boss at the Library of Congress to finance a trip, as he termed it, to "the heart of the mountains," to find "the music of the American pioneer, in all degrees of purity." Radio and mass-market culture were making rapid inroads across the country, and Lomax, who had a flair for drama, painted the trip in the grandest of terms. Nothing less than the history -- and consequently, the future -- of the folk song was at stake.

In his new book, "Chasing the Rising Sun," Ted Anthony implies that the young "songcatcher" who would later head the library's Archive of American Folk Song may have understated his case. By the late '30s, the mines in Kentucky were bringing unprecedented wealth to communities like Middlesboro and, along with it, a flood of outsiders. There weren't any pure folk songs left -- assuming, as Lomax seemed to, that such a thing ever existed in the first place. Most of what he found in the mining camps was a mishmash of styles collected by ramblers, card sharks and prospectors.

Some sang like angels. Lomax had particular success with Georgia Turner, a slight, pretty teenage girl who lived with her family in a one-room log cabin outside Middlesboro. As Anthony painstakingly recounts, she performed two songs for Lomax in 1937; the second and more interesting of the pair was a 98-second lament in a sliding blues scale. It was her signature tune, he writes, and it was delivered in a "sad" voice:

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.

"Chasing the Rising Sun" is a strange and stirring thing: a history book -- and a decently sized one, at that -- that begins and ends in ambiguity. Turner's song, which was eventually made famous in the 1960s by the British band the Animals, is untraceable before the turn of the 20th century. For his part, even Lomax could not conclusively place its origin.

Anthony, a journalist for the Associated Press, has marginally better luck. He finds other instances of the song in the Appalachians in the 1930s, which suggests that it was in popular circulation at the time of the Turner recording. Turner herself may have heard the song at a traveling medicine show -- a musician named Clarence "Tom" Ashley joined that circuit in 1911 and was known for playing "The Rising Sun Blues," an early version of the song. Beyond that, there is a mention of the song in the archives of Robert Winslow Gordon, a magazine columnist and folk song archivist, who was sent a copy by a railroad worker in 1925. As for the eponymous house, it's probably a brothel, although it also might be a gambling hall or a women's prison. At one point, Anthony travels to Lowestoft, a seashore town in the east of England. He wonders whether a balladeer named Harry Cox might have based his version of "Rising Sun" on a bordello there, but after a weekend he discovers that no one has heard of the man.

Anthony is an efficient writer, if not always a particularly provocative one. The problem is structural: He knows who wrote "House of the Rising Sun" -- everyone and no one -- and he has a book to write anyway. In a discussion of bluesman Josh White, who regularly performed "Rising Sun," Anthony explains that the point of a folk composition "is to put your personal stamp on it, to make it relevant to your audience, whether they're on a Kentucky front porch or in an intimate Manhattan cafe." He goes on to quote White as saying, "You take a song, and if the story just doesn't run true to form, then you sort of write into it; you add, and you subtract."

Folk music, in other words, is pastiche. As Anthony suggests elsewhere, the version of "House of the Rising Sun" that we know today has been forged from radically disparate traditions: It holds elements of the Appalachian rag but also the blues; of country and gospel; sometimes it's told from the point of view of a young girl, and sometimes that of a man; there is always the vague malaise of the open road.

It's a distinctly American song, and like "Midnight Special," popularized by Lead Belly, its authors probably stretch across decades.

Anthony, knowing this, is forced to take an oblique tack on "House of the Rising Sun." He chooses a mode of journalism that can also be best described as distinctly American: He gets in his car and drives. He visits folklorists, collectors and musicians. He spends about $10,000 on recordings of his song. He crosses Kentucky, Missouri and the Ozarks. He sits with Eric Burdon of the Animals in New Orleans, and he speaks with Pete Seeger, who once recorded "Rising Sun." He visits a karaoke joint in Thailand. He unearths dozens of variations on the song, including a techno-laced version by a "demonic, kilt-wearing, genre-blending musician called Maxim."

Occasionally the detective work pans out. Near the end of "Chasing the Rising Sun," Anthony tracks down the family of Turner, who died at age 48, having given birth to 11 children. At a family gathering in Monroe, Mich., he plays the Lomax recording to Reno Taylor, Georgia's son; Taylor is grateful and moved. Still, he tells Anthony, "I wish she could have benefited more from all of this."

Elsewhere, the drama feels forced. Anthony shuttles between decades and continents, piecing together fragments of the song with little regard for chronological fluency. It would have been more honest to detail the song's historical evolution in order, although it is doubtful that that book would have been half this one's length.

Folk music, Bob Dylan wrote in his 2004 autobiography, is "a reality of a more brilliant dimension." Anthony, who quotes from that passage, is best when he separates himself from questions of pedigree and ownership and focuses on the larger meaning of his song -- that "expression of emotion distilled into spare wording and sound."

In explaining the impact of Woody Guthrie, for instance, Anthony speculates that folk music allows Americans to "think of ourselves in certain narrow ways that fit the national identity we've built for ourselves.... We are stouthearted and vociferous (life, liberty), but also narcissistic (the pursuit of happiness).... And in the end, we carry a streak of the martyr inside us for what we inevitably have to give up." Dylan would approve.

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