Why No Man Should Ever Sing “House of the Rising Sun” Again

Music can give you sustenance during spiritually meager times, and this spring I kept going back to Joan Baez’ first album again and again.

Joanbaez

Recorded here in New York City in the summer of 1960, Joan Baez (the album) is a spare production of folk classics. She was only 19, and no one had heard of Dylan and she wasn’t a spokesperson for anything just yet, and the songs are all stories more than statements – and sung by that voice. Lots of them, songs like “East Virginia,” come off as so lively precisely because she’s still such a girl, and the heartache of lost love is palpable in them. “Silver Dagger” is her version of  “Katie Dear,” a ballad of doomed love which, because it’s sung in the first person from the girl’s perspective, is darker and scarier.

These songs also evoke the macabre Appalachian heart of America, our people, and an old soul of a girl who can stare into it without fear, with nothing but clarity.

Last week when the President announced his decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, I naturally started thinking hard about Appalachia and its mythical meaning to us (more on that soon). Coincidentally, it was also the week the art scene in my former hometown of Minneapolis hosted a controversy about racism in art, in Sam Durrant’s Scaffold at the Walker Art Center. A white artist was the wrong artist to tell the story of the mass execution of Dakotas during the great uprising, they said.

I rarely get excited about artists or writers overstepping the bounds of what content they’re allowed to take on. Is this my white male privilege? Maybe, but I’m more inclined to agree with Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine: “The real problem with [Scaffold] is that ALL its supposed content is in the work’s explanatory wall label,” a damning comment about lots of political art, no matter who’s controlling the story.

But even I had just determined, after listening to Baez’ “House of the Rising Sun” dozens of times this year, that no man should ever sing that song again. The Animals’ version, which is part of the classic rock canon you just can’t avoid, is utterly lifeless. “It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy” changes the meaning of the story. Eric Burden wasn’t the first man to sing it – even Dylan had a version of it – but that doesn’t mean we should ever  have to listen to it.

It’s about a girl in a whorehouse, a “ruined” woman, and devastating in a first-person version by an artistic giant like Baez:

Can we at least agree on that? If your telling the story is going to screw it up, leave it alone.

Fairytale of New York

This Christmas Day Shane MacGowan turns 59. I wonder if he realized thirty years ago while he was writing the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” (co-written with Jeb Finer) that the saddest Christmas song ever would be his most widely-listened-to:

That woman singing with him is Kirsty MacColl, may she rest in peace. Her father Ewen MacColl was a Scottish Communist and folk-singer. The story goes, he wrote his most popular song for his young mistress Patty Seeger while he was still living with Kirsty’s mother. It’s had many versions, including a super one by Engelbert Humperdinck, but Roberta Flack “owns” it:

Not a bad song for the yule log either. Merry Christmas.