I was 13 years old when I listened to my first Beatles song on the radio and right then and there, I wanted to be a “rock” star, even though I had no clue what that meant! I remember begging my parents to allow me to take some of the money I received for my Bar Mitzvah to buy my first guitar for $39.99, including the case! While this would be the opportune time to say: “The rest is history” …Well, it was, but not the history that I was looking for at the time. Truth be told, I was a mediocre guitar player at best, but certainly not for lack of effort. After torturing my parents’ eardrums for about six months, they acquiesced and enrolled me in guitar lessons at the B Sharp School of Music, which was above the store of the same name where I bought the guitar. And so, it began.
By the end of the summer of 1964, I was getting somewhat proficient with basic chords and my teacher suggested I try some fingerpicking techniques, as they appeared to be in vogue at the time. This was also around the same time that I first heard “House of the Rising Sun” (HRS) by the British group, The Animals, which was released in the US early August of 1964. HRS is actually an old folk song originating in Louisiana, as the first line will tell you, and as is the case for many of these old songs, who it was written by is uncertain. Two things that are certain: The song has been covered ad nauseum, and I simply had to learn to play it. If you are familiar with The Animals’ version of HRS, you might remember that the beginning of the song starts with some note picking (skillfully done by lead guitarist Hilton Valentine) rather than strumming, and this is what I wanted to learn from my teacher. If you are not familiar with the song, here you go:
As it happened, my timing for wanting to learn this song couldn’t have been better, as the music school was planning to mount a musical showcase for some of the more advanced students to perform before an audience in November of that year, just after my fourteenth birthday. I had just over two and a half months to master the finger picking of the intro to HRS! To say that I was nervous about this would be an understatement, but when I found out that the location for the performance was my high school gym, nervousness turned into a full-scale panic attack. It’s one thing to perform live, and a completely different thing to play in front of people you know! I am happy to report that we didn’t suck (I was accompanied by a bass player, another guitarist, and a vocalist), and we were ushered off the stage to a hearty round of applause. I immediately vowed to never, ever do that again. It turns out that wasn’t to be the case.
Many years later, 2007 to be exact, I was teaching high school English and many of the students at this school were fairly accomplished musicians. When I first found out about this, I brought my guitar to school (the one I bought in 1974!) and left it in my classroom so that students could pick it up during breaks and play around. By that time, my obsession with playing had subsided, but I would still pick it up once in a while. I was doing that very thing one afternoon in my room (playing HRS of course) when one of my more gifted musical students came in and told me that she loved that song (she sang and played piano amazingly well) and then asked if I wanted to join her and a few of the other students and perform that song for the school’s annual showcase. So, 43 years later, there I was on a stage in front of colleagues, my students, and the parents of my students. This is when I learned that panic attacks when you are 14 are exactly the same as the ones you have when you are 57!
The spark for this memory comes from scrolling through YouTube one night and coming across a compilation video of covers of HRS from talent shows around the world. Music, it is said, is the universal language because emotions expressed through pitch, rhythm, and tempo are attributes that are shared across cultures. So, if there are words to a particular song you are listening to that you don’t understand, you can still have a visceral reaction to it because of the music. That being said, all six versions of HRS on this video are being sung in English (well, one is from the UK, so that doesn’t count!), which should be a prompt for a discussion of cultural appropriation, but I will leave that for another time. If you have the stomach for it, watch all six, but the ones that amazed me are as follows: #1. An 11-year-old girl from Germany that is seriously channeling Eric Burdon; #2. A man from Russia (starts at 1:57); #3. A man and women (I am not sure where they are from as I can’t read that particular alphabet!). This is the most sexualized version of this song I have ever heard (starts at 10:00). The judges’ reactions to these performances in a host of foreign languages are definitely worth the price of admission. Enjoy!
Los Angeles 2022