Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Please tell his baby sister not to do what he has done.


I’ve written before about how weird it was that the Animals switched the narrator’s gender in “House of the Rising Sun.” Other versions I had heard -- sung by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan -- the narrator is female, talking about working at a whorehouse, how it’s ruining her life, but she’s stuck, and “please tell my baby sister not to what I have done.” Sung by a man, it makes a lot less sense -- the singer is satyrmaniac addicted to houses of ill repute? Yeah, OK, creepy, plausible, but not as the subject of a song. Most sex addicts, it doesn’t ruin their lives, not in the same way anyway.

Since writing about it, I’ve heard three more versions, all interesting in their way.

Josh White (pictured above), like Guthrie & Dylan, sings in the persona of a woman, a tender, mournful, and gently lilting arrangement -- quite beautiful in the interplay of his rich, flexible voice and his sparse guitar.

Leadbelly sings in the male persona. Interesting that the Animals weren’t the first to almost-nonsense-ify the song.

I recently heard a woman’s version for the first time. Joan Baez, on her first album, which she recorded when she was a teen-ager -- needless to say, she sings it from the woman’s point of view. I got this CD from the library, didn’t expect to like it, and liked it very much. She influenced hundreds of earnest folk sopranos after her, but unlike many of them, she sings with nuance and excellent intonation -- at least, she did then; I don’t know her stuff since then very much. She’s a solid guitarist too, and I love the spareness of this collection -- just her voice and guitar, plus the Weavers’ Fred Hellerman on 2nd guitar. Many beautiful songs too, including “John Riley,” which the Byrds also covered gorgeously, few years later. Sandy Denny, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell -- Joan B. influenced them all.

Googling to see what I may have said about this song elsewhere, I found that someone has written a book coming out next spring devoted entirely to “House of the Rising Sun.” I’ll be curious to read it.

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