A native Pittsburgher discusses his first book -- a cultural history of the song "House of the Rising Sun." | Book Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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A native Pittsburgher discusses his first book -- a cultural history of the song "House of the Rising Sun."

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Just when you thought you knew a song: Like most everyone, Ted Anthony believed he had a handle on "The House of the Rising Sun," that lyric of warning, lament and doom The Animals immortalized in their 1964 chart-topper.

But the accomplished journalist, a Pittsburgh native, didn't know the half of it -- something he discovered only after an obsession with the tune set him to researching his first book, Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song (Simon & Schuster).

Anthony, 39, grew up in Hampton Township. But his continuing fascination with "House of the Rising Sun" began in the least likely, and therefore most appropriate, of places: the Thai restaurant in a New Hampshire town where he heard the song rendered almost unrecognizable as background music. Where did that song come from, he wondered -- and how did it end up here?

The Animals' version, of course, is iconic for a reason: With that arpeggiating electric guitar, spooky organ and Eric Burdon's spine-rattling howl, it's arguably the first folk-rock hit, and perhaps even prefigures psychedelia. But it's also where misconceptions about the song begin.

"So many people say right out, 'Oh, The Animals wrote that song,'" says Anthony from his office in New York City, where he's an editor for The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, listeners who know that "Rising Sun" had been a folk standard often cling to other myths. For instance, many believe that the song had African-American origins. And then there's the notion that until The Animals got hold of it, and switched genders for commercial reasons, it had always been about "the ruin of many a poor girl," not Burdon's "poor boy."

In fact, the song is likely rooted in the 17th-century British ballad tradition, and the earliest known versions were all sung by poor Southern whites. (Anthony acknowledges, however, that hypothetical early black versions are more likely to have been left undocumented.) Moreover, the song had long been sung from both male and female perspectives. Even the nature of the "house" itself is ambiguous: Most listeners assume it's a brothel, even though the best-known versions of the song never say so.

But Anthony argues that debates over "original versions" and even "authenticity" are misleading. Other things matter more. One is the chase itself -- the thrill of tracking down a good story, and telling about the people you meet along the way, which Anthony first experienced as a Penn State grad, roaming the commonwealth in his Nissan Sentra for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

Anthony later spent three years as AP's news editor in China, a job that following the 9/11 terrorist attacks found him reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. But despite covering such big stories, he says, "I've always been interested in taking something small and poking it and seeing something larger revealed."

In Chasing the Rising Sun, his ever-expanding quest takes him from the song's American cradle in the Appalachians and Ozarks to the far side of the globe; from an obsessive Maryland collector of old-time records, and descendants of obscure artists who recorded the song -- in places like Saltville, Va. -- to Beijing's PartyWorld Cash Box Karaoke.

The book's trajectory, meanwhile, suggests another of Anthony's themes: That "authenticity" isn't what it's cracked up to be. Witness architecture, where buildings now celebrated as paragons of traditional main-street design were once reviled as pre-fab crap. "Authenticity," says Anthony, "is something that changes from era to era."

Folk music itself, he notes, thrived on change, with songs remade to reflect changing times; while it was noncommercial, it was never "pure." The glory of a song like "House of the Rising Sun" is that so many artists have made it their own. "The [adaptibility] of these songs," he says, "is part of the the tapestry that made this book worth doing."

Ted Anthony discusses and signs Chasing the Rising Sun. 7 p.m. Sat., June 23. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600

Ted Anthony contemplates the ruin of many a poor boy.
  • Ted Anthony contemplates the ruin of many a poor boy.

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