The House Of The Rising Sun
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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.

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