Published on June 17, 2016
“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 to avoid the same fate. The most successful commercial version, recorded in 1964 by the British rock group the Animals, was a number one hit on the UK Singles Chart and also in the United States, Canada and Australia. The song has been described as the “first folk-rock hit”.
The Animals’ version
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 band enjoyed a huge hit with the song, much to Dylan’s chagrin when his version was referred to as a cover. The irony of this was not lost on Dave Van Ronk, who said the whole issue was a “tempest in a teapot.” He also claimed that this version was based on his arrangement of the song. Dylan stopped playing the song after the Animals’ recording became a hit, because fans accused him of plagiarism. Dylan has said he first heard the Animals’ version on his car radio and “jumped out of his car seat” because he liked it so much.
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.
Origin and early version
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 known recording of the song, under the title “Rising Sun Blues”, is by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it for Vocalion Records on September 6, 1933. 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 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.
In 1941, Woody Guthrie recorded a version. A recording made in 1947 by Josh White, who is also credited with having written new words and music that have subsequently been popularized in the versions made by many other later artists, was released by Mercury Records in 1950. White learnt the song from a “white hillbilly singer”, who might have been Ashley, in North Carolina in 1923–1924. Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter 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. Frankie Laine recorded the song under the title “New Orleans” on his 1959 album Balladeer. Actor and comedian Andy Griffith recorded the song on his 1959 album Andy Griffith Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs. Joan Baez recorded it in 1960 on her self-titled debut album; she frequently performed the song in concert throughout her career. In 1960 Miriam Makeba recorded the song on her eponymous RCA album.
Released in October 1964, Johnny Hallyday’s version Le pénitencier made it to the French Billboard Top 10, and he performed the song in his 2014 USA tour.
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
Dave Van Ronk personally taught singer-songwriter Guthrie Thomas the version he had also taught Bob Dylan 16 years earlier in Greenwich Village in New York City, and Thomas credited Van Ronk with having taught him the song backstage at a concert Thomas was performing in New York at The Bitter End. Thomas has never publicly released a recording of the song but performs the Van Ronk version when touring; he plays the song with a 12-string guitar, following in the footsteps of Lead Belly.
Nina Simone recorded her first version for the album Nina at the Village Gate in 1962. Later versions include the 1965 recording in Columbia by Los Speakers in Spanish, called La casa del sol naciente, which was also the title of their second album. They earned a silver record (for sales of over 15,000 copies). The Chambers Brothers recorded a version on Feelin’ the Blues, released on Vault records.
The Animals’ version
|“The House of the Rising Sun”|
|Single by The Animals|
|from the album The Animals|
|B-side||“Talkin’ ’bout You” (R. Charles)|
|Released||19 June 1964 (UK)
August 1964 (U.S.)
|Recorded||18 May 1964|
|Genre||Blues rock, folk rock, psychedelic rock|
|Length||4:29 (album version)
2:59 (single version)
|Label||Columbia Graphophone DB7301 (UK)
MGM 13264 (U.S.)
|Writer(s)||Trad., arranged by Alan Price|
|The Animals singles chronology|