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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 264
Tues. Dec 17, 2013

“House of the Rising Sun”
Cat Power

2006

“♫ There
is a house
in New
Orleans
♫”

Sometimes songs come to you, only when you’re ready, last night—after watching another wondrous episode of HBO’s Treme, Cat Power’s acoustic rendition of “House of the Rising Sun,” found me. When the artist originally known as Chan Marshall sings this vintage ballad that was made famous by The Animals and Bob Dylan it’s like I’m back there in the city of New Orleans I still love that I first called home.

One of the reasons I first discovered Cat Power was her sense of history and the way she would inhabit classic songs when she would cover them. Chan Marshall explained why she loves performing covers songs to Interview Magazine when he said, “The idea of doing a cover song today is usually about novelty or some marketing gimmick. But actually interpreting songs—that’s part of the thread work of the history of music. It’s tradition. When people complain about hip-hop— “Oh, they just copy someone else and it’s the same thing over and over . . .” No, it’s the same shit that we’ve been doing since people first started making songs, whether it be country or jazz or whatever. Everybody has always sung everybody else’s songs. It’s about the song. I don’t care if someone else wants to sing my damned songs. You know, if Bob Dylan hadn’t covered “The Moonshiner,” I would never have heard it or played it. If Eric Burdon hadn’t covered “House of the Rising Sun,” I wouldn’t have ever discovered it or probably have ever sought out the Dylan version. So I hate it when people complain about me doing so many covers. It’s part of a tradition. It’s a part of the craft.”

Speaking of tradition, did you know “Rising Sun” is a long-established southern folk song, legend has it that this ballad was based on a brothel “House” named after Madame Marianne LeSoliel Levant, who’s last name literally translate into “Rising Sun.” While touring with Chuck Berry in the sixties, The Animals covered “Rising Sun,” Eric Burdon explained how his band’s version came to light when he said, “House of the Rising Sun’ is a song that I was just fated to. It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick and it worked. It actually wasn’t only a great trick, it was a great recording. The best aspect of it, I’ve been told, is that Bob Dylan, who was angry at first, turned into a rocker. Dylan went electric in the shadow of The Animals classic ‘House of the Rising Sun.”

Being a Dylan fan, in 2006 the artist originally named Chan Marshall recorded her cover on a Live Sessions EP for I-Tunes. In case you’re wondering how Cat Power selects the songs for her records, she talked the process to Nashville Scene when she explained, “First thing that always happens to any song, it’s like a triad. That’s what I call it in my brain. It’s my guitar, my vocal, and the tempo that I’m strummin’ it. There’s three pieces: The tempo is my beat, the note is my key, and the vocal is the words. I think of things as a triad. Same with Sun — every song started with either a guitar and a vocal, a keyboard and a vocal, a synthesizer and a vocal. It’s always the lyrics, the melody and the tempo first. I want to say that it’s super-normal.”

Chan is far from super-normal, that’s what I love about her, has also kept her an uncompromising recording artist since 1995. Marshall talked about the secret to her longevity with Smart Shanghai, when she said, “To me, music is a trade, like sewing or being a dishwasher, or a nanny or a teacher. It’s a handicraft, like knitting or being a chef. It’s something you do with your hands, it’s a visual. I’ve never really been proud of any of my work in the past but I was proud of this record, so I guess that’s something. Me being proud of myself is a much greater award than I’ve ever had in the past, you know what I’m saying? That’s all that really matters. That’s my success.”

Actually one of the reasons, Chan Marshall is successful is becomes she respects her musical history. During the interviews for her latest album Sun, Marshall had to explain the reasons why she recorded another album of cover songs, i.e. 2008’s Jukebox when she told The Huffington Post, “Well, here’s the thing about that: even with classical music hundreds of years ago, people always played covers. From folk to tribal to Cab Calloway, Cole Porter, Gershwin to the Rolling Stones, whose first record was all covers, to country-western, bebop, blues, and even the referencing in classic hip hop to clichéd love ballads of the 80s or whatever — that is kinda gone, and that’s just terrifying to me. My last album was [the 2008 covers collection] “Jukebox,” and I don’t understand why everyone’s like, “Your last album [“The Greatest,” which featured all original songs] was six years ago, and what took you so long?” It’s like, Well, I busted my ass recording and touring a record called “Jukebox,” and I’ve never been happier recording a record or playing a record before. But it’s an inexcusable thing these days.”

What I respect most about Marshall is her uncompromising nature as an artist who follows her heart and her creative voice. Chan explained why she has remained the outspoken musician, singing cover songs and playing music her own way when she told The Beat Juice, “I think I’ve said it a bunch of times, but it’s important. It’s when I learned that the fluidity about consciousness and awareness is important. When you play music, there is a flow, and if you can continue that validity, making it clear that it’s OK to speak your mind, that’s fucking important. That’s why I do it.”

Chan Marshall sings because it’s her life’s calling. But, unlike most singers looking for celebrity, Cat Power not only an artist but also a fan and a connoisseur of all the classics, so much so that during one of her Cat Power shows, cover songs will definitely be sprinkled throughout her eclectic sets, Marshall talked to Creem Magazine about he love of vintage music and why she performs so many cover songs in concert when she said, “ I really am pissed off at the whole modern generation who knows nothing about old music. Historically, you can look at The Rolling Stones’ first record, and you could look at The Beatles. Everybody talks, “Oh, covers,” but all these fuckers, they know every Beatles song, but what they don’t know is that everybody used to do covers. In the ‘80s, everything changed, and it was, “Me, me, me, me, me, me.” For people who don’t understand, that’s a tradition of American song. They just need to get over it, and start learning, ‘cause I’m not going to stop doing covers.”

In case you’re still wondering why Chan Marshall records her favorite classic songs as she told KindaMuzik, “I always love to do covers because I always love songs. I craved for something that was more simple. I crave for a moment in time when I would be there.” Marshall doesn’t just cover songs like “House of the Rising Sun,” she inhabits there essence and re-imagines them by bringing these classics to life with her own voice as Cat Power.

Last night, I rediscovered Chan Marshall’s timeless version of the classic southern folk ballad, “House of the Rising Sun.” During my first grad school residency I was asked of all the cities I lived, which place was my favorite. It’s an easy answer, New Orleans. No song reflects the place that I first found my voice, alone, that the Myth City that is N.O. When Marshall sings this vintage ballad that was made famous by The Animals and Bob Dylan it’s like I’m back there in the place I first called home.

Cat Power’s rendition brought back my own history with her hauntingly beautiful version of “House of the Rising Sun.” While Chan Marshall remains one of the few true artists who is still brave enough to honor the past and perform covers of her favorite classics, songs like this one from her 2006 Live Sessions EP are the reasons that the artist originally known as Chan Marshall will outlast the fame hungry pretenders. Go back and revisit the history, the beauty within these acoustic refrains; when Cat Power inhabits the history of New Orleans capturing our imaginations and breaths when she shines her eternal voice on “House of The Rising Sun.”

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