When it comes to the song ‘House of the Rising Sun’, most people are sent down memory lane and they come up with the same result, The Animals had that song. This traditional folk ballad has been around for a long time and revolves around New Orleans and a person’s life.
The 1964 hit, by the Animals, is instantly recognizable due to their chord pattern. It’s not only that, as the folk-inspired song comes from way back in time. However, till now, no one has been able to identify where the song came from. This traditional folk song is a mystery and no one knows if this is English, American, or even French. But, we do know that this song goes back at least a century.
There are many speculations surrounding the song. According to Songfacts, there are two popular theories on the songs. The first one is about a brother in New Orleans, which goes something like this. “The song is about a brothel in New Orleans. “The House Of The Rising Sun” was named after its occupant Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (which means “Rising Sun” in French) and was open for business from 1862 (occupation by Union troops) until 1874 when it was closed due to complaints by neighbors. It was located at 826-830 St. Louis St.”
The second one stated, “It’s about a women’s prison in New Orleans called the Orleans Parish women’s prison, which had an entrance gate adorned with rising sun artwork. This would explain the “ball and chain” lyrics in the song.”
This song became a phenomenon as an African-American folk song. The song followed a very traditional English ballad arrangement. Texas Alexander was the first to record it in the 1920s, and many other performers followed, including Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Nina Simone, whose version the Animals first heard.
The Animals vocalist Eric Burdon was the one to hear the song in a nightclub in Newcastle, England. It was during the band’s tour with Chuck Berry. They believed they would like to sing that song on the tour and it was a great decision. In one take, The Animals recorded the song in May 1964. The subject of the song was altered from being a woman living in squalor to be the son of a gambler and a drinker. Back then, there was heavy censorship and this was needed to make the song more friendly.
About the song, Eric Burdon said, “‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a song that I was just fated to. It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick and it worked. It actually wasn’t only a great trick, it was a great recording.”
The Animals’ version was huge in both the UK and the US. It peaked at number one on the US pop singles chart two months after its release. It also became their signature song. It was also the first British Invasion number one which was not related to the Beatles.
Clarence Ashley also made an earlier recording of the son in 1933. His version of the son is in the bluegrass style. When asked about the song, he answered he learned the song from his grandfather, which makes the song even older than the 1900s. Even a girl named Georgia Turner was recorded singing the song in rural Kentucky. Ashley and Turner were miles apart, and it’s up to our imagination, how they learned about the song.
Even Dylan included the song on his very first album in 1962. He had used a folk arrangement for the song, later on when the Animals recorded the song, it was different listen for Bob. Eric Burdon said, “Bob Dylan, who was angry at first, turned into a rocker. Dylan went electric in the shadow of The Animals classic ‘House of the Rising Sun.'”
Some notable people sang the song, ‘Rising Sun Blues’. They are
- Woody Guthrie, Josh White, and Lead Belly in the 1940s
- Glenn Yarbrough, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger, and Andy Griffith in the 1950s
- Miriam Makeba, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Tim Hardin, and Bob Dylan in the 1960s
In the end, no one really knows where the song came from. Its history has disappeared into thin air. Just like the story looks like the song traveled from one place to another in the 1900s. Back then, Medicine shows were popular and there were traveling bands of musicians and salesmen. In every new town, they would draw attention and the salesmen would sell their items. This way the song traveled from one place to another. No one really knows where this early song came from, but we sure love it. The way this tune plays in our ears is different from anything else.