Like many other myths and legends in the Crescent City, a cloud of mystery surrounds “The House of the Rising Sun,” the song made famous by The Animals in the 1960s. Everyone agrees that it’s about the dark and debaucherous side of New Orleans’ culture, but that’s pretty much where the consensus ends. But not where my questions do.
Was “the house” a brothel? A tuberculosis hospital? Slave quarters on a plantation? An antebellum syphilis clinic for prostitutes? (Really, that’s an actual theory!) The lyrics have been changed so much over the years, it’s really hard to tell. But, let’s do a little detective work.
The two earliest recordings date back to 1930s Appalachia, but it’s known to be older than that. In his book, Chasing the Rising Sun, the Journey of an American Song, author Ted Anthony actually traces the song’s origins back to a bawdy English folk song that goes, “If you go to Lowestoft and ask for the Rising Sun, there you’ll find two old whores, and my old woman’s one.”
Well, that certainly lends credence to the house-of-ill repute theory, but it’s by no means proof. Lyrics from the earliest American versions include lines like “Going back to New Orleans, my race is almost run. Going back to spend the rest of my days beneath that Rising Sun.” So despondent! Maybe a prison or hospital is plausible after all? Time to delve deeper into local lore.
My interest in this subject was originally piqued when a tour guide at the Old Ursuline Convent once told me that many people believe that a house near the convent on Ursulines Avenue was once the brothel that inspired the song. Not only does she deny this, but she claims “the house” wasn’t a brothel at all, but a women’s prison which had a rising sun decoration on its gate. (Suddenly the lyric about wearing “that ball and chain” becomes quite literal.) Dearly departed sixties folk singer Dave van Ronk (who sang his own version, ripped off by Bob Dylan, and further ripped off by The Animals) apparently supported this notion, as he claimed in his autobiography that he had seen pictures of that aforementioned sun design on the gates of the old Orleans Parish Women’s Prison. Wish he’d left behind a link to that image, as there seems to be no trace or mention of it anywhere.
According to my research, only two contenders are documented as having used the name “Rising Sun.” A Rising Sun Hotel was located at 535-37 Conti Street in the 1820s. (This is on the same block as Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Kitchen and a block away from the Napoleon House, should you need a hearty dinner and/or a Pimm’s Cup). An old newspaper ad mentions that the hotel has “the best entertainment” and that “Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive servants.” (You decide if these are euphemisms.) Additionally, lots of rouge and makeup were found on the property. Interesting artifacts for a gentlemen’s hotel, doncha think?
The other documented candidate is Rising Sun Hall, which was owned by a social aid and pleasure club during the late 19th century on the riverfront of the Uptown/Carrollton area. Far from the seedier parts of town, but who knows?
Yet another theory involves a madam named Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose name is French for “rising sun.” Hmm. A couple of sources place her brothel at 1614 Esplanade Avenue, a very unromantic spot in the shadow of the I-10 freeway. But most say it was at 826-830 St. Louis Street, a block north of Chris Owens’ infamous club and around the corner from Chef Susan Spicer’s Bayona. This location is now a real estate office, and the owner says renovations uncovered risque postcards from the 1800s and a ceiling mural of a golden rising sun surrounded by three cherubs. Indeed!
I came across one final claim by a gentlemen who used to own Good & Plenty Records at 1129 Decatur Street, now the location of the Courtyard Gallery, across from the Magnolia Grill. Before his death in the 90s, “Record Ron” claimed this was the original site. It’s totally random, but what the heck? Might as well toss it onto the pile.
So many theories, but where’s the definitive proof?
Well, after reading, digging around and walking the streets of New Orleans, I found out – there is none. A short ferry ride across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter brings you to the tiny historic burg of Algiers. There, the proprietors of the House of the Rising Sun Bed & Breakfast are the first to admit that their establishment is merely a tribute to “the fictitious house of ill-repute.” So there you have it. No concrete living proof remains – if it ever did, but I’m still not willing to write it off as fiction! My search for the truth prevails. Vive la mystère!