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Roots music

Chasing the Rising Sun The Journey of an American Song Ted Anthony Simon & Schuster: 310 pp., $26

June 17, 2007|Matthew Shaer | Matthew Shaer is an editor at the Christian Science Monitor and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.

Anthony, knowing this, is forced to take an oblique tack on "House of the Rising Sun." He chooses a mode of journalism that can also be best described as distinctly American: He gets in his car and drives. He visits folklorists, collectors and musicians. He spends about $10,000 on recordings of his song. He crosses Kentucky, Missouri and the Ozarks. He sits with Eric Burdon of the Animals in New Orleans, and he speaks with Pete Seeger, who once recorded "Rising Sun." He visits a karaoke joint in Thailand. He unearths dozens of variations on the song, including a techno-laced version by a "demonic, kilt-wearing, genre-blending musician called Maxim."

Occasionally the detective work pans out. Near the end of "Chasing the Rising Sun," Anthony tracks down the family of Turner, who died at age 48, having given birth to 11 children. At a family gathering in Monroe, Mich., he plays the Lomax recording to Reno Taylor, Georgia's son; Taylor is grateful and moved. Still, he tells Anthony, "I wish she could have benefited more from all of this."

Elsewhere, the drama feels forced. Anthony shuttles between decades and continents, piecing together fragments of the song with little regard for chronological fluency. It would have been more honest to detail the song's historical evolution in order, although it is doubtful that that book would have been half this one's length.

Folk music, Bob Dylan wrote in his 2004 autobiography, is "a reality of a more brilliant dimension." Anthony, who quotes from that passage, is best when he separates himself from questions of pedigree and ownership and focuses on the larger meaning of his song -- that "expression of emotion distilled into spare wording and sound."

In explaining the impact of Woody Guthrie, for instance, Anthony speculates that folk music allows Americans to "think of ourselves in certain narrow ways that fit the national identity we've built for ourselves.... We are stouthearted and vociferous (life, liberty), but also narcissistic (the pursuit of happiness).... And in the end, we carry a streak of the martyr inside us for what we inevitably have to give up." Dylan would approve.

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