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Saturday, February 05, 2011

The House of the Rising Sun

The death of Jack LaLanne really caught me by surprise. My first thought: hasn't he been dead for like 30 years? Seriously, I remember his TV show from when I was a child, and he was old then! Nope, he lived to the ripe old age of 95 and finally hung up the gloves on January 23rd of this year.

Of course the dead fitness guru I was thinking of is Jim Fixx, the running pioneer who died in 1984 at age 52, and who was also a fellow progenitor of the fitness movement. Fixx's untimely death of heart failure produced some controversy, causing many to question the value of jogging and cardio fitness in general. This skepticism was short-lived, however; numerous studies plus common sense upheld the relationship between longevity and fitness. Fixx's premature assumption of room temperature was attributed to genetics—his father suffered a similar demise at age 43.

And of course with Jack LaLanne, who lived a few standard deviations beyond average life expectancy, there was the usual dry humor about how he worked so hard at staying in shape and still died.

So, let's talk about something else then: The House of the Rising Sun. Not the New Orleans whorehouse or casino or women's prison, but the song.

Way back when I was in high school, I had a friend who fancied himself a Rock and Roll historian of sorts, mainly because he had bought and read a large tome on the subject. He regularly shared his arcane knowledge with us; one of his “facts” was that the song “House of the Rising Sun,” popularized by Eric Burdon and The Animals, was based on a poem penned by Beat Generation personality Allen Ginsburg, and first recorded as a song by the Detroit band Frijid Pink, later to be covered and popularized by The Animals.

This proved to be wildly incorrect. Armed with some scant wisdom of age, I no longer associate accuracy of information with the vehemence or confidence with which it is asserted, but as a tender youth of 17, I pretty much believed everything I heard, and probably repeated the incorrect information multiple times over the years.

The authorship of the original poem or song is lost to antiquity, but Alan Price of The Animals claims that it originated in 16th century England, and was written about a Soho brothel employee. English settlers purportedly imported it to America, where it was adapted to portray a denizen or patron of a New Orleans brothel or prison, depending on the telling. Wikipedia has a fascinating article on the song, which I will not attempt to repeat here; interested readers are encouraged to look it up.

Versions of the song have been recorded since the 1930's; the closest thing to its modern version was recorded by blues legend Leadbelly in the 1940's, and later adapted as a folk song by Bob Dylan in 1962. Until then, it was sung in first person from the perspective of a young woman drawn into a life of prostitution or other crime by her gambling husband. The Animals reworked it as a folk/rock ballad in 1964, and altered the lyrics to reflect the perspective of a self-destructive young gambler following in his father's footsteps, to make it more politically correct (this was the pre-Madonna era after all). They also shortened it considerably to facilitate airplay. It was their biggest commercial success, eclipsing the version by Bob Dylan, who, to his profound chagrin, was himself informally accused of plagiarism, despite the precedence of his recording.

Frijid Pink recorded a rock and roll version in 1969, also a commercial success, in fact their only one. The band wagon being rather large, a survey of YouTube reveals that myriad pop, rock, folk, and even country stars have recorded it, including Dolly Parton. Personally, I like the Dylan version best.

Accordion to his website, Jack LaLanne, at age 45 in 1959, did 1000 pushups and 1000 chinups in 1 hour, 22 minutes. Then at age 60, he swam, handcuffed and shackled and towing a 1000 lb. boat, from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf. Apparently he didn't do any heavy lifting in the intervening 15 years. Well, okay, he was growing his fitness empire (which later evolved into Bally's), writing books on nutrition and exercise, and starring in his own exercise TV show.

As the old saying goes, you can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs. Although the importance of exercise and nutrition for health and well-being are fully understood throughout the civilized world, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. LaLanne spent much of his career at odds with the medical establishment and other so-called experts who claimed that weight training would cause a man to be musclebound and suffer heart attacks, and had even more dire predictions for the women who LaLanne was encouraging to exercise.

LaLanne is dead now, may God have mercy on his soul. But his influence lives on. On the day he died, under the “workout of the day” (WOD) on our CrossFit whiteboard at the Air Force gym, someone posted his WOD for age 45: 1000 pushups and 1000 chinups. Of course, although they fully appreciated his awe-inspiring level of fitness, the under-40 crowd had to be educated on who he even was.

Also dead from today's story, in addition to the genetically-disadvanged Jim Fixx, are Leadbelly, Allen Ginsburg, and Euell Gibbons. Bob Dylan and Eric Burdon supposedly are still alive, but recent pubic appearances might cause one to question this. Maybe they should eat some pine cones and do more WODs before it's too late!


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