The House of the Rising Sun
"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 and Canada. As a traditional folk song recorded by an electric rock band, it has been described as the "first folk-rock hit".
Origin and early versions
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 girlGreat 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 for Vocalion Records on 6 September 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 3 November 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.
Early folk and blues releases
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 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. Frankie Laine recorded the song under the title "New Orleans" on his 1959 album Balladeer. 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 album Nina at the Village Gate in 1962. The Chambers Brothers recorded a version on Feelin' the Blues, released on Vault records.
Van Ronk arrangement
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.
The Animals' version
|"The House of the Rising Sun"|
|Single by The Animals|
|from the album The Animals|
|B-side||"Talkin' 'bout You"|
|Released||19 June 1964 (UK)|
|Recorded||18 May 1964|
|Writer(s)||Traditional, arranged by Alan Price|
|The Animals singles chronology|
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.
Recording and releases
The song was recorded in just one take on 18 May 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" – nonetheless was 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 U.S. debut album The Animals, while the full version was later included on their best-selling 1966 U.S. 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.
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 ever since, especially with Valentine.
"House of the Rising Sun" was a trans-Atlantic hit: after reaching the top of the UK pop singles chart in July 1964, it topped the U.S. pop singles chart two months later, on 5 September 1964, where it stayed for three weeks, and became the first British Invasion number one unconnected with the Beatles. It was the group's breakthrough hit in both countries and became their signature song. The song was also a hit in a number of other countries, including Ireland, where it reached No. 10 and dropped off the charts one week later.
Dave Marsh described the Animals' take on "The House of the Rising Sun" as "...the first folk-rock hit," sounding "...as if they'd connected the ancient tune to a live wire." Writer Ralph McLean of the BBC agreed that "It was arguably the first folk rock tune," calling it "a revolutionary single", after which "the face of modern music was changed forever."
The Animals' rendition of the song is recognized as one of the classics of British pop music. Writer Lester Bangs labeled it "a brilliant rearrangement" and "a new standard rendition of an old standard composition." It ranked number 122 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". It is also one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". The RIAA ranked it number 240 on their list of "Songs of the Century". In 1999 it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. It has long since become a staple of oldies and classic rock radio formats. A 2005 Channel Five poll ranked it as Britain's fourth-favourite number one song.
"Where Did Our Love Go" by The Supremes
|Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
5 September 1964 – 19 September 1964
| Succeeded by|
"Oh, Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison
"It's Over" by Roy Orbison
|UK Singles Chart number-one single
9 July 1964 – 15 July 1964
| Succeeded by|
"It's All Over Now" by The Rolling Stones
Frijid Pink version
|"House of the Rising Sun"|
|Single by Frijid Pink|
|from the album Frijid Pink|
|Writer(s)||Traditional, arranged by Alan Price|
|Frijid Pink singles chronology|
In 1969, the Detroit band Frijid Pink recorded a psychedelic version of "House of the Rising Sun", which became an international hit in 1970. Their version is in 4/4 time (like Van Ronk's and most earlier versions, rather than the 6/8 used by the Animals) and was driven by Gary Ray Thompson's distorted guitar with fuzz and wah-wah effects, set against the frenetic drumming of Richard Stevers.
According to Stevers, the Frijid Pink recording of "House of the Rising Sun" was done impromptu when there was time left over at a recording session booked for the group at the Tera Shirma Recording Studios. Stevers later played snippets from that session's tracks for Paul Cannon, the music director of Detroit's premier rock radio station, WKNR; the two knew each other, as Cannon was the father of Stevers's girlfriend. Stevers recalled, "we went through the whole thing and [and Cannon] didn't say much. Then 'House [of the Rising Sun]' started up and I immediately turned it off because it wasn't anything I really wanted him to hear." However, Cannon was intrigued and had Stevers play the complete track for him, then advising Stevers, "Tell Parrot [Frijid Pink's label] to drop God Gave Me You [the group's current single] and go with this one."
Frijid Pink's "House of the Rising Sun" debuted at #29 on the WKNR hit parade dated 6 January 1970 and broke nationally after some seven weeks—during which the track was re-serviced to radio three times—with a number 73 debut on the Hot 100 in Billboard dated 27 February 1970 (number 97 Canada 1970/01/31) with a subsequent three-week ascent to the Top 30 en route to a Hot 100 peak of number 7 on 4 April 1970. The certification of the Frijid Pink single "House of the Rising Sun" as a gold record for domestic sales of one million units was reported in the issue of Billboard dated 30 May 1970.
The Frijid Pink single of "House of the Rising Sun" would give the song its most widespread international success, with Top Ten status reached in Austria (number 3), Belgium (Flemish region, number 6), Canada (number 3), Denmark (number 3), Germany (two weeks at number 1), Greece, Ireland (number 7), Israel (number 4), the Netherlands (number 3), Norway (seven weeks at number 1), Poland (number 2), Sweden (number 6), Switzerland (number 2) and the UK (number 4). The single also charted in Australia (number 14), France (number 36), and Italy (number 54).
Sales and certifications
|United States (RIAA)||Gold||1,000,000^|
Billboard Country Chart
|"The House of the Rising Sun"|
|Single by Dolly Parton|
|from the album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs|
|Dolly Parton singles chronology|
The song has twice been a hit record on Billboard's country chart.
Jody Miller version
Dolly Parton version
In September 1981, Dolly Parton released a cover of the song as the third single from her album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs. Like Miller's earlier country hit, Parton's remake returns the song to its original lyric of being about a fallen woman. The Parton version makes it quite blunt, with a few new lyric lines that were written by Parton. Parton's remake reached number 14 on the U.S. country singles chart and crossed over to the pop charts, where it reached number 77 on the Billboard Hot 100; it also reached number 30 on the U.S. adult contemporary chart. Parton has occasionally performed the song live, perhaps most notably on her 1987–88 television show, in an episode taped live in New Orleans.
Five Finger Death Punch version
|"House of the Rising Sun"|
|Single by Five Finger Death Punch|
|from the album The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 2|
|Released||3 February 2014|
|Five Finger Death Punch singles chronology|
The American heavy metal band Five Finger Death Punch released a cover of "House of the Rising Sun" on their fifth studio album, The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 2, which was later released as the album's second single and the band's third single of the Wrong Side era. The references to New Orleans have been changed to Sin City, a reference to the negative effects of gambling in Las Vegas. The song was a top ten hit on mainstream rock radio in the United States.
|scope="row"||US Hot Rock Songs (Billboard)||26|
|scope="row"||US Mainstream Rock (Billboard)||7|
|US Rock Digital Songs (Billboard)||35|
|US Rock Airplay (Billboard)||29|
In French, Johnny Hallyday's version Le pénitencier, released in October 1964, made it to the French Billboard Top 10, and he performed the song in his 2014 USA tour.
Possible real locations
Various places in New Orleans have been proposed as the inspiration for the song, with varying plausibility. The phrase "House of the Rising Sun" is often understood as a euphemism for a brothel, but it is not known whether or not the house described in the lyrics was an actual or a fictitious place. One theory is that the song is about a woman who killed her father, an alcoholic gambler who had beaten his wife. Therefore, the House of the Rising Sun may be a jailhouse, from which one would be the first person to see the sun rise (an idea supported by the lyric mentioning "a ball and chain," though that phrase has been slang for marital relationships for at least as long as the song has been in print). Because women often sang the song, another theory is that the House of the Rising Sun was where prostitutes were detained while treated for syphilis. Since cures with mercury were ineffective, going back was very unlikely.
Only three candidates that use the name Rising Sun have historical evidence—from old city directories and newspapers. The first was a small, short-lived hotel on Conti Street in the French Quarter in the 1820s. It burned down in 1822. An excavation and document search in early 2005 found evidence that supported this claim, including an advertisement with language that may have euphemistically indicated prostitution. Archaeologists found an unusually large number of pots of rouge and cosmetics at the site.
The second possibility was a "Rising Sun Hall" listed in late 19th-century city directories on what is now Cherokee Street, at the riverfront in the uptown Carrollton neighborhood, which seems to have been a building owned and used for meetings of a Social Aid and Pleasure Club, commonly rented out for dances and functions. It also is no longer extant. Definite links to gambling or prostitution (if any) are undocumented for either of these buildings.
A third was "The Rising Sun", which advertised in several local newspapers in the 1860s, located on what is now the lake side of the 100 block of Decatur Street. In various advertisements it is described as a "Restaurant," a "Lager Beer Salon," and a "Coffee House." At the time, New Orleans businesses listed as coffee houses often also sold alcoholic beverages.
Bizarre New Orleans, a guidebook on New Orleans, asserts that the real house was at 1614 Esplanade Avenue between 1862 and 1874 and was said to have been named after its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname means "the rising sun" in French.
Another guidebook, Offbeat New Orleans, asserts that the real House of the Rising Sun was at 826–830 St. Louis St. between 1862 and 1874, also purportedly named for Marianne LeSoleil Levant. The building still stands, and Eric Burdon, after visiting at the behest of the owner, said, "The house was talking to me."
There is a contemporary B&B called the House of the Rising Sun, decorated in brothel style. The owners are fans of the song, but there is no connection with the original place.
Not everyone believes that the house actually existed. Pamela D. Arceneaux, a research librarian at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans, is quoted as saying:
I have made a study of the history of prostitution in New Orleans and have often confronted the perennial question, "Where is the House of the Rising Sun?" without finding a satisfactory answer. Although it is generally assumed that the singer is referring to a brothel, there is actually nothing in the lyrics that indicate that the "house" is a brothel. Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics.
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