The Song “The House of the Rising Sun” Predates New Orleans
“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.”
These are the first lines in the 1964 version of the “House of the Rising Sun,” by the British rock and roll band The Animals. The classic rock song tells the story of a young boy who was led into a life of pain and misery at house of vices and ill repute. Gambling, prostitution and corruption running rampant is what the song is said to be referring to. It is well known as one of the first, if not the first, traditional American folk song about the infamous city of New Orleans.
The History of the House of the Rising Sun
“The House of the Rising Sun,” is said to have a close resemblance to another song, “The Unfortunate Rake,” an old 16th-century folk song. Over time, much like has been said about “The House of the Rising Sun,” has evolved many, many times over. The earliest known variant of “The Unfortunate Rake” laments over a young man dying of syphilis. This count would be in line with the song that The Animals made so famous. Other versions depict the fate of young soldiers, sailors, cowboys or maids whose lives ended much too soon. In any event, it really is the tale of a sad state of affairs.
Alan Lomax was an accomplished American collector of folk songs during the 20th-century.
According to Lomax, “Rising Sun” was the name of a vulgar house of vices in two different traditional English songs; as well the name of pubs across England. He also suggested that the location of the house was changed from England to New Orleans by white southern performers.
Other sources have suggested that the “Rising Sun” came from France and referred to a sunburst insignia dating all the way back to Louis XIV; it could have been brought to North America by French immigrants.
The Rising Sun was to have been in New Orleans, Louisiana and some say it was a real place and others say it wasn’t. It all depends on who you talk to and their version of the song and their version of the myth. The question would be similar to, “which came first… the chicken or the egg?” Some say the song was named for a real place and others say that real places were named for the song. No matter which version you subscribe to, there is a set of lyrics and more than one folk tale to go along with each.
The earliest mention of any place called “Rising Sun” in New Orleans was found in the Louisiana Gazette on Monday, January 29, 1821 (p.1, col.6). There is an advertisement that appears for the, “Rising Sun Hotel,” on Conti Street. Presently, the building is located at 535-37 Conti Street.
The same newspaper of Thursday, Feb.28, 1822, reported that “Conti Street. About two o’clock yesterday morning a fire broke out in the Rising Sun Hotel, Conti Street. The whole of that extensive building was entirely consumed….” To date, it does not appear that the original hotel was ever rebuilt or reopened after the tragic fire.
The song was recorded while the group was on tour with rock and roll legend, Chuck Berry.
The Animals recorded their version of the famous song for EMI Records; surprisingly in one take. That doesn’t happen often. Immediately upon release, the song was a huge hit; the first one for the boys from across the big pond.
The song was first released in the United Kingdom where it soared to the top of the singles charts in July 1964. Shortly after, in August of the same year, it was released in the United States during the height of the “British invasion.” As expected, it became just as popular in the U.S. as it was in the U.K. and topped the American singles charts for three consecutive weeks. The epic song sold over one million copies in five short weeks, in the U.S. alone.
The original version of the song we now know as, “The House of the Rising Sun,” dates back to 1932 and was recorded by Clarence “Tom” Ashley.
Originally, it was entitled, “Rising Sun Blues.” Later in 1934, The Callahan Brothers recorded the same song as “Rounder’s Luck.” The song was also recorded by several other artists including Josh White, Huddie Leadbelly Ledbetter, Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie.
Even Bob Dylan took a go at recording the classic song.
Bob's version appears on his self-titled 1962 debut album, which contains mostly traditional songs, with just two original compositions by a man now considered one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I think most people these days, however, recognize the version released by The Animals in 1964, as the best known. Through the process of evolution, the song lyrics changed somewhat, “The House of the Rising Sun” is the name and version that stuck. The Animals’ version of the song has become an iconic, pop song of the '60s.
The song's origin is somewhat interesting.
The original tune resembles the arrangement of a traditional English ballad by Matty Groves, but the lyrics appear to have ties to the hills of the American South. The song started as a folk song that had been brought to the U.S. by British settlers over a hundred years ago. How in the world it became associated with New Orleans is curious. The fact remains, however, that the words were changed to suit the atmosphere of New Orleans, which is historically been known as a den of iniquity in the Southern states.
There is an English version of “The House of the Rising Sun” that includes the lyrics,
“There is a house in Lowesoft,
They call the Rising Sun.”
Lowesoft is town in the English county of Suffolk. It is situated on the North Sea coast and is the eastern most settlement of the U.K.; 110 miles north-east of London. It is thought by some that changing the lyrics to name Lowesoft instead of New Orleans was a “dig” at The Animals” version of the hit song. It is definitely a possibility… after all, they were Brits and it got their attention!
Thin Lizzy, Johnny Hallyday and Five Finger Death Punch are also among the famous artists that recorded the hit song, “The House of the Rising Sun.”
“The House of the Rising Sun” has been recorded in many different musical styles including old timey, folk, blues, rhythm & blues, Cajun, disco, punk, house/trance, jazz, rock and roll, Latin, reggae, German tango and Country.
Though nobody has matched The Animals' chart success with the song, country singer Jody Miller's version reached #29 on the country music chart in 1973, and a 1981 recording by the legendary Dolly Parton reached #14 on the country chart.
The song is also a hot item on Karaoke night. It can be heard on elevator music and is especially noticeable when played on the harmonica. It has long been a favorite for guitar lessons; especially by up and coming students who are Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix fans. It actually may well be one of the most recorded songs in history.
There are a couple of things we know for sure. One thing is that we DON’T know for sure who the original author of “The House of the Rising Sun” is. The original songwriter is unknown. Countless musicologists have done extensive research and traced the song’s origins back as far as the 18th century to a traditional English ballad. Like many ballads and folk songs, the lyrics have changed over the years to suit the singer and the audience. No one can claim rights to the song, so anyone can alter it, record it or sell it royalty-free; so have at it!
Another thing we know for sure is that no matter the origin of the famous song, that changed the music world, is that the song is much older than New Orleans, itself.
Below are the lyrics to “The House of the Rising Sun” as performed by the Animals:
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, 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 trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied is when he’s on a drunk.
Oh, mothers 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, I’ve got one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train
And I’m going 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.
Over the years and there have been countless famous House of the Rising Sun album covers. The song is so epic that it can’t be limited to just one!
So, friends, you are free to talk among yourselves and make up your own minds. Enjoy the version you like the best and believe what you want to believe. When it is all said and done, it really doesn’t matter. The song is a part of our music heritage and that is something we all know!
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