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© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
Saved from oblivion by folklorist Alan Lomax, curator of the Archive of American Song, House of the Rising Sun (or Rising Sun Blues) is a folk-ballad variously thought to be about life gone bad in New Orleans or a London Soho brothel. It’s true origins are lost in the mists of time.
Probably first recorded in 1933 by Appalachian artists Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster, it was a massive hit for The Animals in 1964, but other recordings combine to make it most known. Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Leadbelly, The Weavers, Frankie Laine, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Nina Simone have all recorded it.
We Shall Overcome comes a close second in most well-known. It became the key anthem of 1960s American folk-protest in the civil rights movement. Adapted in 1947 by Pete Seeger from a negro spiritual melody (and The Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn from late Eighteenth Century) and performed by him and Joan Baez at rallies, festivals and concerts, it has since become associated with any struggle against insurmountable odds.
Ewan MacColl is an example of two things at least: one, the multiplicity of roles of people involved in folk (he was British folk singer, songwriter, socialist, actor, poet, playwright and record producer); and two, how people are often from extended families of like-minded people.
MacColl was in a long relationship with folk singer Peggy Seeger (sister to Pete Seeger); he was father of singer/songwriter Kirsty MacColl (The Smiths; The Pogues) and collaborated with socialist theatre director Joan Littlewood.
Just one of his songs, The Moving On Song, indicates the range of his political commitment through music and lyric. It’s about eviction and displacement.
Maritime and sea shanties have long been a staple of the folk world for communities who live by the shore, and whose men endure the hardships of catching fish at sea in all weathers. Along with mining, factory and travel narratives, they constitute the bulk of folklore.