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Archive for August 10th, 2012

The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free.  –  Tim Rice, “One Night in Bangkok

Doing the “Five Star Fridays” columns over at The Agitator last month inspired me to publish a new whore songs column, and recently watching several movies set in brothels inspired me to concentrate specifically on songs about them.  Previous columns featured “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It”,  “Next”, “La Grange” and “Midtown Asian Sex Spa”; in addition, “Take Off With Us” portrays a sort of airborne brothel.  But until now I’ve skipped what may be the most famous song about a brothel for the simple reason that the most popular version of it isn’t about a brothel at all.

The House of the Rising Sun, AKA Rising Sun Blues (Traditional)

There is a house in New Orleans 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 Mama said, I’d be at home today.
Being so young and foolish, poor boy, let a rambler lead me astray.
Go tell my baby sister never do like I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.
My mother she’s a tailor, she sewed these new blue jeans.
My sweetheart, he’s a drunkard, Lord, Lord, drinks down in New Orleans.
The only thing a drunkard needs is a suitcase or a trunk.
The only time he’s satisfied is when he’s on a drunk.
Fills his glasses to the brim, passes them around.
Only pleasure he gets out of life is hoboin’ from town to town.
One foot is on the platform 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, my race is almost run.
Going back to spend the rest of my days beneath that Rising Sun.

The song is quite old; its tune (and possibly its theme) go back to 18th century England, and the lyrics above date to the 19th-century American South.  The Animals’ version is of course the most famous, but it changes the singer’s gender and therefore necessarily the character of the House (which becomes a gambling den) and the drunkard (who becomes the singer’s father rather than lover).  Interestingly, enough people remembered the old lyrics that the reputation of the Rising Sun as a brothel persisted despite the fact that in the Animals version it certainly isn’t one.  Here’s the oldest known recording of the original version (made by folklorist Alan Lomax in 1937; the performer is a 16-year-old Kentucky girl named Georgia Turner).  And here’s the Dolly Parton version from 1981, with new lyrics to make the meaning more obvious.

Many people have wondered if there was ever a real New Orleans brothel named the Rising Sun, but the only answer I can give is a firm “maybe”.  City records list a “Rising Sun Hotel” at 535 Conti Street, which opened in 1801 and burned down in 1822; archaeologists excavating the site in 2005 discovered a large number of makeup containers and liquor bottles, and a document search revealed an 1820 newspaper ad recommending the place to “discerning gentlemen”.  The guidebook Bizarre New Orleans claims that the brothel was at 1614 Esplanade Avenue, ran from 1862 to 1874 and derived its name from its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant (Mary Ann Rising Sun).  One final candidate is 826-830 St. Louis Street; workmen restoring the building in the late 1980s discovered vintage postcards of semi-nude women and a ceiling mural of a rising sun with three cherubs.  The owner, Darlene Levy, says “the house was a bordello operated by a succession of different madams for many years” before her husband bought it, but has no records to back up the claim.

The most famous New Orleans brothels were those in Storyville, and this song (as featured in the movie New Orleans) dramatizes the closing of the district by Executive Order from Woodrow Wilson in 1917:

Farewell To Storyville (Clarence Williams)

All you old-time queens, from New Orleans, who lived in Storyville
You sang the blues, tried to amuse, here’s how they pay the bill
The law step in and call it sin to have a little fun
The police car has made a stop and Storyville is done

Pick out your steamboat, pick yourself a train
(a slo-ow train)
Pick out your steamboat, pick yourself a train
(a slo-ow train)
They made you close-up they’ll never let you back
(won’t let you back)
Go buy your ticket or else you walk the track

No use complaining, blue skies follow rain
(the cold old rain)
No use complaining, blue skies follow rain
(the cold old rain)
Just say farewell now and get your one last thrill
(your one last thrill)
Just say farewell now, farewell to Storyville

(No use complaining, blue skies follow rain)
(the cold old rain)
(No use complaining, blue skies follow rain)
(the cold old rain)
(Just say farewell now and get your one last thrill)
(your one last thrill)
(Just say farewell now, farewell to Storyville)

Finally, here’s another song from Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel; the brothel described herein is not a real one, but rather a product of the singer’s rather megalomaniacal imagination.  This song was banned from the BBC in 1967 because of the drug references and the line, “authentic queers and phony virgins”.

Jacky (Jacques Brel; translated by Mort Shuman)

And if one day I should become
A singer with a Spanish bum
Who sings for women of great virtue
I’d sing to them with a guitar
I borrowed from a coffee bar
Well, what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you
My name would be Antonio
And all my bridges I would burn
And if I gave them some they’d know
I expect something in return
I’d have to get drunk every night
To talk about virility
With some old grandmother who might
Be decked out like a Christmas tree
And though pink elephants I’d see
Though I’d be drunk as I could be
I’d sing the song they sang to me
About the time they called me Jackie
If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way!

And if I joined the social whirl
Became procurer of young girls
Then I would have my own bordellos
My record would be number one
And I’d sell records by the ton
All sung by many other fellows
My name would then be Handsome Jack
And I’d sell boats of opium
Whiskey that came from Twickenham
Authentic queers and phony virgins
I’d have a bank on every finger
A finger in every country
And every country ruled by me
I still know where I’d want to be
Locked up inside my opium den
Surrounded by some Chinamen
I’d sing the song that I sang then
About the time they called me Jackie
If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way!

Now, tell me wouldn’t it be nice
That if one day in Paradise
I sang for all the ladies up there?
And they would sing along with me
We’d be so happy there to be
‘Cause down below is really nowhere
My name would then be Jupiter
And I would know where I was going
And then I would become all knowing
And my beard so long and flowing
If I became deaf, dumb and blind
Because I pitied all mankind
And broke my heart to make things right
I know that every single night
When my angelic work was through
The angels and the devil too
Would sing my childhood song to me
About the time they called me Jackie
If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one stinkin’ hour
Cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way!

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