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The House of the Rising Sun

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“The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional folk song. Also called “House of the Rising Sun” or occasionally “Rising Sun Blues”, it tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans. 

The most successful commercial version was recorded by the English rock group The Animals in 1964, which was a number one hit in the United Kingdom, United States, Sweden, Finland and Canada.

The house of the Rising Sun, a song with roots in 17th century British folk melody. The rising sun has been a longtime symbol for brothels in British and American ballads. It circulated widely among Southern musicians, black and white. Black bluesman Texas Alexander first recorded it in 1928. 

Roy] Acuff who commercially recorded the song on Nov 3, 1938 may have learned this number from such neighboring Smoky Mountain artists as versatile entertainer Clarence Tom Ashley or the Callahan Brothers, an influential duet team of the ’30s and ’40s. 

The Animals performed this while touring England with Chuck Berry. It went over so well that they recorded it in 1964 between stops on the tour. They recorded in 1 take, they had perfected this from years performing it on the road.

The traditional version of “The House of the Rising Sun” speaks, not of a boy’s experience, but of a girl corrupted into a life of ruin. The confusion probably starts with the fact that the Animals did not write “The House of the Rising Sun.” (If you look at the really small print on their 1966 album, The Best of the Animals, you’ll find that it was only arranged by Burdon / Chandler / Price / Steele / Valentine.)

According to folklorist Alan Lomax in his book Our Singing Country (1941), the melody of “The House of the Rising Run” is a traditional English ballad and the lyrics were written by Georgia Turner and Bert Martin (both from Kentucky). The song was first recorded in the 1920s by black bluesman Texas Alexander and later covered by Leadbelly, Charlie Byrd, Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, Henry Mancini, Dolly Parton, David Allan Coe, John Fahey, Waylon Jennings, Tim Hardin, Buster Poindexter, Marianne Faithful, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan . . . just to name a few.

Here from Lomax’s book are the traditional lyrics :

The House of the Rising Sun

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many poor boys
And me, Oh God, I’m one
My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gambling man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a truck
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s all a drunk

He fills his glass up to the brim
And he’ll pass the cards around
And the only pressure he gets out of his life
Is ramblin’ from town to town

Oh mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your life in sin and misery
in the house of the Rising Sun

Well, it’s one foot on the platform
And the other foot on the train
I’m going back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

I’m going back to New Orleans
My race is almost run
I’m going back to New Orleans
Down in the Rising Sun

Here the version of the Animals:

The House of the Rising Sun

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new bluejeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk

—— organ solo ——

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

Did the House of the Rising Sun ever really exist?
A guidebook called Offbeat New Orleans asserts that the real House of the Rising Sun was at 826-830 St. Louis St. between 1862 and 1874 and was purportedly named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname translates to “The Rising Sun.”

But no one knows for certain. When the Animals made the song popular in the 60s, Eric Burdon was overwhelmed by the theories: “People would come up to me and say, ”You want to know where the real House of the Rising Sun is?’ And I’d say, ‘I’ve heard that one before.’ Then I started going along for the ride. I’d go to women’s prisons, coke dealers’ houses, insane asylums, men’s prisons, private parties. They just wanted to get me there.” Then, with a laugh, he adds, “They’re trying to build up tourism, and here’s this Brit singing about a whorehouse.” It’s a good thing you came to the Straight Dope, Jo. Ignorance has been the ruin of many a poor girl.

Rod Macdonald emailed me some additional info about the song, he wrote; “The melody sung through the years is not the one we know now….in about 1960 Dave van Ronk, who is generally credited with writing the version of the music that bob dylan appropriated and the Animals then used, wrote a new chord chart that caused slight changes in the melody… Dave also had a photo, which I have seen, of a building with a sign that said “Rising Sun prison”….he said he had actually seen the place, that it was not a whorehouse but a prison for women…which makes sense for someone going back to “wear that ball and chain”….the photo was published in the Fast Folk Musical Magazine in the 1980s, which means it is now in the custody of the Smithsonian Folkways label.”

Source photo: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rising_sun_animals_US.jpg
 “House of the Rising Sun”, US-single by The Animals, label (cover).  Fair use rationale: *Image is used by article The House of the Rising Sun *Image is used only by that article *Image is vital to understanding subject matter.