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GUEST,John Garst Origin or title of House of the Rising Sun? (184* d) RE: Origin or title of House of the Rising Sun? 15 Aug 05

Earlier in this thread there are several comments on Dave Van Ronk's speculation that the house of the rising sun was a women's prison rather than a bordello. This is based, apparently, on unusual verses about wearing a "ball and chain" and a photograph of a women's prison in New Orleans showing a fan pattern over the entrance. This speculation is also permitted by the vagueness of the verses that are usually quoted, i.e., Ashley, Callahan Brothers, Turner, and successors.

Also mentioned several times earlier is Randolph/Legman's publication of "unprintable Ozark folksongs," but no one seems to have posted the verses printed there or pointed out that they make the bordello interpretation absolutely explicit.

Here they are:

"Boy" versions - apparently older and more widespread than "girl" versions:

Beware the red light out in front
An' the pictures on the wall,
An' yellow gals dressed in purple shoes
Without no clothes at all.

Shun the red light an' flowin' bowl,
Beware of too much drink,
Them whores will take an' lead you on
To hell's eternal brink.


There is a house in New Orleans,
They call it the Rising Sun,
An' when you want your pecker spoilt
That's where you get it done.

They drink all day an' fuck all night
Until your money's gone;
They kick you ass out in the street
When the second shift comes on.

"Girl" version:

He took me from my mother's home,
He dragged me in the slime,
He sold me into a parlor house
Where I must do my time.
It's one foot on the platform,
The other on the train,
I'm going back to New Orleans -
I'll wear the ball and chain.

I'm going back to New Orleans,
My time is almost done,
I'm going back to find my child
Beneath that Rising Sun.

The last version is confusing. Having been sold "into a parlor house / Where I must do my time" the singer is later "going back to New Orleans / I'll wear the ball and chain" and "My time is almost done." Does "my time" have different meanings in its two occurrences here? If she had to do her time in a New Orleans parlor house, why was she having to go back to New Orleans when her time was almost done, and why will she wear the ball and chain. Did women ever "wear the ball and chain" in Louisiana? Somehow I associate chains with men. As for "going back to find my child / Beneath that Rising Sun," the singer believed that an aborted child had been disposed of in the privy of a brothel or prison.

This version seems to be a hybrid.

I think that's true of many versions, actually. The verses seem to have two separate themes, (1) the hard luck and life of a rounder and (2) the perils of the house of the rising sun. It wouldn't surprise me if it turned out that verses on these two themes belonged at one time to different songs that got blended to produce the versions popular today.

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