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“The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional folk song, sometimes called “Rising Sun Blues”. It tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans; many versions also urge a sibling or parents and children to avoid the same fate. The most successful commercial version, recorded in 1964 by British rock group The Animals, was a number one hit on the UK Singles Chart and also in the United States and France. As a traditional folk song recorded by an electric rock band, it has been described as the “first folk rock hit”.
Like many classic folk ballads, “The House of the Rising Sun” is of uncertain authorship. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads, and thematically it has some resemblance to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. According to Alan Lomax, “Rising Sun” was used as the name of a bawdy house in two traditional English songs, and it was also a name for English pubs. He further suggested that the melody might be related to a 17th-century folk song, “Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave”, also known as “Matty Groves”, but a survey by Bertrand Bronson showed no clear relationship between the two songs. Lomax proposed that the location of the house was then relocated from England to New Orleans by white Southern performers. However, Vance Randolph proposed an alternative French origin, the “rising sun” referring to the decorative use of the sunburst insignia dating to the time of Louis XIV, which was brought to North America by French immigrants.
“House of Rising Sun” was said to have been known by miners in 1905. The oldest published version of the lyrics is that printed by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925, in a column “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” in Adventure magazine. The lyrics of that version begin:
There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one
The oldest known recording of the song, under the title “Rising Sun Blues”, is by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it on September 6, 1933 on the Vocalion label (02576). Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley. Roy Acuff, an “early-day friend and apprentice” of Ashley’s, learned it from him and recorded it as “Rising Sun” on November 3, 1938. Several older blues recordings of songs with similar titles are unrelated, for example, “Rising Sun Blues” by Ivy Smith (1927) and “The Risin’ Sun” by Texas Alexander (1928).
The song was among those collected by folklorist Alan Lomax, who, along with his father, was a curator of the Archive of American Folk Song for the Library of Congress. On an expedition with his wife to eastern Kentucky, Lomax set up his recording equipment in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in the house of the singer and activist Tilman Cadle. In 1937, he recorded a performance by Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter of a local miner. He called it The Rising Sun Blues. Lomax later recorded a different version sung by Bert Martin and a third sung by Daw Henson, both eastern Kentucky singers. In his 1941 songbook Our Singing Country, Lomax credits the lyrics to Turner, with reference to Martin’s version.
Early folk and blues releases
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In 1941, Woody Guthrie recorded a version. Keynote Records released one by Josh White in 1942, and Decca Records released one also in 1942 with music by White and the vocals performed by Libby Holman. Holman and White also collaborated on a 1950 release by Mercury Records. White is also credited with having written new words and music that have subsequently been popularized in the versions made by many other later artists. White learned the song from a “white hillbilly singer”, who might have been Ashley, in North Carolina in 1923–1924. Lead Belly recorded two versions of the song, in February 1944 and in October 1948, called “In New Orleans” and “The House of the Rising Sun”, respectively; the latter was recorded in sessions that were later used on the album Lead Belly’s Last Sessions (1994, Smithsonian Folkways).
In 1957, Glenn Yarbrough recorded the song for Elektra Records. The song is also credited to Ronnie Gilbert on an album by The Weavers released in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Pete Seeger released a version on Folkways Records in 1958, which was re-released by Smithsonian Folkways in 2009. Andy Griffith recorded the song on his 1959 album Andy Griffith Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs. In 1960, Miriam Makeba recorded the song on her eponymous RCA album.
Joan Baez recorded it in 1960 on her self-titled debut album; she frequently performed the song in concert throughout her career. Nina Simone recorded her first version for the live album Nina at the Village Gate in 1962. Simone later covered the song again on her 1967 studio album Nina Simone Sings The Blues. Tim Hardin sang it on This is Tim Hardin, recorded in 1964 but not released until 1967.The Chambers Brothers recorded a version on Feelin’ the Blues, released on Vault Records (1970).
In late 1961, Bob Dylan recorded the song for his debut album, released in March 1962. That release had no songwriting credit, but the liner notes indicate that Dylan learned this version of the song from Dave Van Ronk. In an interview for the documentary No Direction Home, Van Ronk said that he was intending to record the song and that Dylan copied his version. Van Ronk recorded it soon thereafter for the album Just Dave Van Ronk.
I had learned it sometime in the 1950s, from a recording by Hally Wood, the Texas singer and collector, who had got it from an Alan Lomax field recording by a Kentucky woman named Georgia Turner. I put a different spin on it by altering the chords and using a bass line that descended in half steps—a common enough progression in jazz, but unusual among folksingers. By the early 1960s, the song had become one of my signature pieces, and I could hardly get off the stage without doing it.
Then, one evening in 1962, I was sitting at my usual table in the back of the Kettle of Fish, and Dylan came slouching in. He had been up at the Columbia studios with John Hammond, doing his first album. He was being very mysterioso about the whole thing, and nobody I knew had been to any of the sessions except Suze, his lady. I pumped him for information, but he was vague. Everything was going fine and, “Hey, would it be okay for me to record your arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun?'” Oh, shit. “Jeez, Bobby, I’m going into the studio to do that myself in a few weeks. Can’t it wait until your next album?” A long pause. “Uh-oh”. I did not like the sound of that. “What exactly do you mean, ‘Uh-oh’?” “Well”, he said sheepishly, “I’ve already recorded it”.
An interview with Eric Burdon revealed that he first heard the song in a club in Newcastle, England, where it was sung by the Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. The Animals were on tour with Chuck Berry and chose it because they wanted something distinctive to sing.
The Animals’ version transposes the narrative of the song from the point of view of a woman led into a life of degradation to that of a man whose father was now a gambler and drunkard, rather than the sweetheart in earlier versions.
The Animals had begun featuring their arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” during a joint concert tour with Chuck Berry, using it as their closing number to differentiate themselves from acts that always closed with straight rockers. It got a tremendous reaction from the audience, convincing initially reluctant producer Mickie Most that it had hit potential, and between tour stops the group went to a small recording studio on Kingsway in London to capture it.
The song was recorded in just one take on May 18, 1964, and it starts with a now-famous electric guitar A minor chord arpeggio by Hilton Valentine. According to Valentine, he simply took Dylan’s chord sequence and played it as an arpeggio. The performance takes off with Burdon’s lead vocal, which has been variously described as “howling”, “soulful”, and as “…deep and gravelly as the north-east English coal town of Newcastle that spawned him”. Finally, Alan Price’s pulsating organ part (played on a Vox Continental) completes the sound. Burdon later said, “We were looking for a song that would grab people’s attention”.
As recorded, “House of the Rising Sun” ran four and a half minutes, regarded as far too long for a pop single at the time. Producer Most, who initially did not really want to record the song at all, said that on this occasion: “Everything was in the right place … It only took 15 minutes to make so I can’t take much credit for the production”. He was nonetheless now a believer and declared it a single at its full length, saying “We’re in a microgroove world now, we will release it”.
In the United States, however, the original single (MGM 13264) was a 2:58 version. The MGM Golden Circle reissue (KGC 179) featured the unedited 4:29 version, although the record label gives the edited playing time of 2:58. The edited version was included on the group’s 1964 US debut album The Animals, while the full version was later included on their best-selling 1966 US greatest hits album, The Best of the Animals. However, the very first American release of the full-length version was on a 1965 album of various groups entitled Mickie Most Presents British Go-Go (MGM SE-4306), the cover of which, under the listing of “House of the Rising Sun”, described it as the “Original uncut version”. Americans could also hear the complete version in the movie Go Go Mania in the spring of 1965.
“House of the Rising Sun” was not included on any of the group’s British albums, but it was reissued as a single twice in subsequent decades, charting both times, reaching number 25 in 1972 and number 11 in 1982, using the famous Wittelsbach organ.
The Animals version was played in 6/8 meter, unlike the 4/4 of most earlier versions. Arranging credit went only to Alan Price. According to Burdon, this was simply because there was insufficient room to name all five band members on the record label, and Alan Price’s first name was first alphabetically. However, this meant that only Price received songwriter’s royalties for the hit, a fact that has caused bitterness among the other band members ever since.
– Eric Burdon – Vocals.
– Alan Price – Keyboards.
– Chas Chandler – Bass.
– Hilton Valentine – Guitar.
– John Steel – Drums.