Who Did House of the Rising Sun First Before the Animals?

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Song: House of the Rising Sun (1964)

Artist: The Animals

Label: Columbia

Writer: Traditional (arrangement by The Animals, et al.)

House of the Rising Sun Original?

The tune most identified with the animals was not written entirely by them and yet was not a cover. House of the Rising Sun, also known as Rising Sun Blues, was a traditional folk song. Recorded versions of the song go back to the 1930s, the oldest known from Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster of Appalachia, recorded in 1933. It was known, perhaps long before this, and would have been sang as a traditional song by many before. It was one of the many traditional songs collected by Alan Lomax on his journeys for the Library of Congress. He recorded it in the field sung by a Middlesboro, Kentucky woman named Georgia Turner, in 1937. This recording is also sometimes credited as the first, though it clearly is not and it is clear that Turner’s knowledge of the song is not unique at all. Nobody knows where the song came from. Like many such songs, it was part of the southern landscape but was probably based on a traditional English folk song.

Texas Alexander – The Risin’ Sun

Before I move on I should mention a recording by Alger Texas Alexander, The Risin’ Sun. From 1928, this song is sometimes mistakenly listed as the first known recording of ‘House of the Risin’ Sun’ (Rising Sun Blues). However, it is clearly not the same song and it makes no sense that it would have influenced the versions being sung (as a traditional tune) by the early 1930s. The lyrics of the song may indeed be a reference to ‘Rising Sun Blues’ (house of..):

My woman’s got something, just like the risin’ sun.

The Risin Sun, perhaps, was a bordello or ‘bawdy house’ and the something his woman has is sexual, or, perhaps the lyrics had nothing to do with this at all and uses a different slang reference altogether. “My woman got somethin round and it looks just like a bear, sometime I wonder what in the hell is there.” It has been claimed that ‘rising sun’ was African American slang for vagina, but this has never been confirmed.

Regardless, many sources claim that Texas Alexander is the originator of House of the Rising Sun, simply because of the existence of his recording with a similar name. It bears absolutely no resemblance musically or lyrically. There is actually no story at all in the song, let alone a mention of New Orleans, or a house of any kind, or even of a young man or woman whose life is turned upside down. There is also no warning to any younger sibling.(1)

Other such blues songs include:

  • Rising Sun Blues by Ivy Smith, recorded in 1927
  • Rising Sun Blues by Charles “Cow Cow” Davenports, 1927
  • Rising Sun Blues by King David’s Jug Band, 1930
  • Rising Sun Blues by Darby and Tarlton, 1930
  • The Rising Sun Blues by Peetie Wheatraw, 1935
Early Lyrics

The earliest printed version of lyrics for House of the Rising Sun is from a piece published in Adventure Magazine in 1925: Old Songs That Men Have Sung:

There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many poor girl
Great God, and I for one.

This column, Old Songs That Men Have Sung was written by Robert Winslow Gordon, a collector of folk songs and then the director of the Library of Congress’s Archive American of Folk Song, who wrote:

It not infrequently happens that a given song is found both in a recognizable ‘author’ version and also in a form showing partial composition by the folk. In some cases it can easily bee seen in which direction the influence has gone; either that the work of an individual author has been adopted and made over by the folk, or that an author has used as his bases a genuine folk-song which he has dressed up to suit his purpose.

The latter is clearly the direction that House of the Rising Sun took, and, indeed, it has been claimed that the song was known in America by 1905. This is also a good time to dispense with the oft-repeated myth that the song was always traditionally sung by a ‘female character’ from the perspective of a female. This is absolutely false. Like any folk song, the version has always changed to suit the singer and both male and female versions are found throughout its history.

The song is often identified as a ‘traditional blues song.’ This is incorrect. Although the actual House of the Rising Sun was recorded by many black bluesmen, including Leadbelly, there is no evidence that it arose from the blues or from Urban Blues, as asserted by some. Alan Lomax said that he only ever heard it sung, during his travels, by white southerners. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they couldn’t have been influenced by traveling black musicians which would have thus influenced the evolution of the song. It is best identifed as an American folk song with potential roots in the folk songs of England.

Josh White Version – Prelude to The Animals

The earliest recorded versions of the song are done in a major key. The first version that I know of done in a minor key is by bluesman Josh White. This early version is by far the closest to the modern version of the song I would suppose that it is White who inspired those who came after him. The melody we know today was the melody sung by White.

The Animals’ version of House of the Rising Sun has become the definitive version but it is difficult to know what version of the song they were most inspired by. Several stories have been told of its history. One story is that a ten-year-old Eric Burden, later to become the singer of The Animals, heard Josh White’s version and “found the melody haunting.” It stuck with him and he later used it to inspire the version done by his band. (1) A more credible story is that Eric Burden first heard the song performed by an English folk singer named Johnny Handle.

Whatever the case, The Animals used Bob Dylan’s version as a guide. The guitar part is the same chords used by Dylan, except in arpeggios.

Oddly, keyboardist Alan Price is given sole credit for the arrangement and if you search for the modern lyrics of the song (which has several added verses), Price is listed as the songwriter. Eric Burden explained that this happened because there was not enough room to list all the band members’ names on the record label and Alan Price was first in alphabetical order. This caused Price alone to receive royalties from the song, a fact that rankled the other band members, to say the least and was one of the things that led to the breakup of the band. When Eric Burden and the band confronted Alan Price during a 1983 reunion show and asked him whether he was ready to start sharing royalties, Price refused.

Dave Van Ronk to Bob Dylan

It is often claimed that successful versions of old songs were inspired by older and less commercially successful or lesser-known versions or at least non-contemporaneous ones. However, if the Animals used Bob Dylan as a guide, then they ultimately used Dave Van Ronk, without being aware of it. Bob Dylan recorded Van Ronk’s arrangement around the same time as the Animals recorded their version.

Bob Dylan used Van Ronk’s arrangement as part of his debut album in 1962. Van Ronk used a minor key like Josh White, but also used a descending bass line in half-steps, something quite unusual in a folk song in that day. Van Ronk’s version is a big part of what made the song what it is today. He was an influential figure in the folk scene of Greenwich Village during the 1960s and it is said that he showed his new arrangement to a young Bob Dylan who jumped the gun and recorded it himself just a few weeks bore Van Ronk himself was going to record his own version.

Bob Dylan didn’t bother to ask Van Ronk’s permission until he had obviously already recorded it. Said Van Ronk:

I was sitting at my usual table in the back of the Kettle of Fish, and Dylan came slouching in. He had been up at the Columbia studios with John Hammond, doing his first album. He was being very mysterioso about the whole thing, and nobody I knew had been to any of the sessions except Suze, his lady. I pumped him for information, but he was vague.

Dylan told Van Ronk that everything was going fine before sheepishly asking him “Hey, would it be okay for me to record your arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun?’ Van Rink regretfully told him that he was going into the studio to record it himself in a few weeks. Couldn’t he wait until the next album? To that, Dylan replied, “Uh oh.” It was too late.

While Van Ronk didn’t actually own the song, it was generally excepted that you didn’t record someone’s special arrangement of an otherwise public domain song without at least asking them for verbal permission. It hardly mattered that Dylan jumped the gun, who surely had not known of Van Ronk’s intention to record it, as the Animals’ version of the song overshadowed his own and became such a huge hit that he stopped playing it. (2)

Van Ronk himself had learned the song from a recording by Hally Wood, a singer and song collector from Texas, who had himself discovered the song through the Georgia Turner field recording by Alan Lomax.

There are two other versions also recorded by Lomax, by Dawson Henson and Bert Martin. There is also a later version recorded by Lomax in 1949, this time by folk singer Jean Ritchie.

Other Notable Versions of House of the Rising Sun
  • Leadbelly (1944,1948)
  • Woody Guthrie (1941)
  • Josh White (1942)
  • Glenn Yarbrough (1957)
  • Pete Seeger (1958)
  • Andy Griffith (1959)
  • Joan Baez (1960)
  • Nina Simone (1962)
  • The Doors (1964)
  • Tim Hardin (1967)
  • Leslie West (1975)
  • Jody Miller (1973)
  • Dolly Parton (1981)

What is the House of the Rising Sun?

Nobody really knows, originally, what the ‘house’ was supposed to be. Many renditions of the song are not clear and never really describe just what the house is. I mentioned a house of ill-repute above. This is one assumption. Another is that it was a prison. A very distinct possibility, and the one I think most likely, is a gambling house. The early lyrics from 1925, mentioned before, collected by archivist Robert Winslow Gordon (given to him by William Burroughs) mentions a rounder:

There is a house in New Orleans
It’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl,
Great God, and I for one

If I had listened to what my mother said,
I’d be at home today,
But I was a young and foolish poor girl,
Let a rounder lead me astray

Oh mother, mother tell me why,
You treat that rounder cold?
I’d rather be that rounder’s wife
Than to wear your crown of gold

Now tell my sister in Baltimore
Not to do as I have done,
To shun that house in New Orleans,
It’s called the Rising Sun

A rounder could be a gambler, especially a person who earns his living playing cards. A rounder could also be a drunk, someone who spends a lot of time in bars. Since either version of a rounder could have been found in a bar, and a bar can also be a gambling house, we at least know that the House of the Rising Sun, in this version, was not a prison, and probably never was meant to be. The Rising Sun is not where they send you when you are lead astray, but the place that leads you astray in the first place.

There are other versions that make the ‘house’ clearly a ‘whorehouse’ or brothel. The modern versions of the lyrics owe the most to Georgia Turner’s version recorded by Lomax, which seems to have been the most popular version. (1) In Lomax’s written version of the song, he added stanzas collected from other singers to ”finish” the song (it doesn’t really make sense to try to finish a folk song, hence the quotes). Here is the Turner version:

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
And me, O God, for one.
Go tell my baby sister
Never do like I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
My mother she’s a tailor,
She sewed these new blue jeans.
My sweetheart, he’s a drunkard, Lord, Lord,
Drinks down in New Orleans.
The only thing a drunkard needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk.
The only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk.
One foot is on the platform
and the other one on the train.
I’m going back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain.
Lomax added other stanzas, presumably from Bert Martin:
If I had listened what Mama said,
I’d be at home today.
Being so young and foolish, poor boy,
Let a rambler lead me astray.
Fills his glasses to the brim,
Passes them around.
Only pleasure he gets out of life
Is hoboin’ from town to town.
Going back to New Orleans,
My race is almost run.
Going back to spend the rest of my days,
Beneath that Rising Sun.

Sources

    1. Anthony, Ted. Chasing the RISING SUN: The Journey of an American Song. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
    2. Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. Billboard Books, 2003.
    3. Whatley, Jack. “How Bob DYLAN Broke an Unwritten Rule of Folk Music by Recording ‘House of the Rising Sun’.” Far Out Magazine How Bob Dylan Broke an Unwritten Rule of Folk Music by Recording House of the Rising Sun Comments, 23 Sept. 2020, faroutmagazine.co.uk/bob-dylan-broke-unwritten-rule-house-of-the-rising-sun/.