“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 English rock group The Animals, was a number one hit in the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Canada and Australia.
Origin and early versions
Like many classic folk ballads, the authorship of “The House of the Rising Sun” is uncertain. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads such as The Unfortunate Rake of the 18th century, and that English emigrants took the song to America where it was adapted to its later New Orleans setting. There is also a mention of a house-like pub called the “Rising Sun” in the classic “Black Beauty” tale, published in 1877, which was set in London, England, and which may or may not have influenced the song’s title.
The oldest known existing recording is by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it for Vocalion Records in 1934. Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley.
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 a singer and activist named 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. According to his later writing, the melody bears similarities to the traditional English ballad, “Matty Groves”.
Roy Acuff, an “early-day friend and apprentice” of Ashley, learned it from him and later recorded it as “Rising Sun”. 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. 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 later became 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 one of The Weavers albums 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 then titled “New Orleans” on his 1959 album Balladeer. Actor and comedian Andy Griffith recorded the song on his 1959 album Andy Griffith Shouts the Blues and Old Timey Songs. Joan Baez recorded it in 1960 on her debut album; she frequently performed the song in concert throughout her career. In 1960 Miriam Makeba recorded the song on her eponymous RCA album.
Released in October in 1964, Johnny Hallyday’s version Les portes du pénitencier made it to the French Billboard Top 10, and he included the song in his 2014 USA tour.
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 on the documentary No Direction Home, Van Ronk said that he was intending to record the song, and that Dylan copied his version. He recorded it soon thereafter on 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.
Dave Van Ronk personally taught singer-songwriter Guthrie Thomas, the version he also taught Bob Dylan 16 years earlier in Greenwich Village in New York City and Van Ronk is whom Thomas credits as the man that taught him the song when Van Ronk went backstage at a concert Thomas was performing in New York City at “The Other End,” a café-dinner house in New York in the West End. Thomas has never released his commercial version of the song publically but does perform the Van Ronk version when touring and plays the song with a 12 string guitar following in the footsteps of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
Nina Simone recorded her first version on Nina at the Village Gate in 1962. Later versions include the 1965 recording in Columbia by The Speakers in Spanish called La casa del sol naciente, which was also the title of their second album. They earned a silver record (for sales of over 15,000 copies). The Chambers Brothers recorded a version on Feelin’ The Blues, released on Vault records.
The Animals version
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. This interview refutes assertions that the inspiration for their arrangement came from Bob Dylan. 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,” and that Dylan stopped playing the song after The Animals’ hit because fans accused Dylan 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.
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.” Van Ronk claims that this version was based on his arrangement of the song.
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, as opposed to 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.
Recorded in just one take on 18 May 1964, it starts with a now-famous electric guitar A minor chord arpeggio by Hilton Valentine. 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.”
“House of the Rising Sun” was a trans-Atlantic hit: after having reached the top of the UK pop singles chart in July 1964, it topped the U.S. pop singles chart two months later in September, when it 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, but was less successful in Ireland, where it only reached #10 and dropped off the charts one week later. Ireland had the showband scene, and rhythm and blues was not particularly popular.
The Animals’ rendering 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 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. It is also one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The RIAA placed it as number 240 on their Songs of the Century list. 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.
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 otherwise minimized his role, 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 as 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, boasted, “Original uncut version.” Americans also could 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 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.
Sales and certifications
Frijid Pink version
In 1969, Detroit band Frijid Pink recorded a psychedelic version of “House of the Rising Sun” that 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 leftover 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 – Stevers knew Cannon as his (Stevers’) girlfriend’s father – ; Stevers recalls: “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 #73 debut on the Hot 100 in Billboard dated 27 February 1970 (#97 Canada 1970/01/31) with a subsequent three-week ascent to the Top 30 en route to a Hot 100 peak of #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 afford the song its most widespread international success with Top Ten status reached in Austria (#3), Belgium (Flemish Region) (#6), Canada (#3), Denmark (#3), Germany (2 weeks @#1), Greece, Ireland (#7), Israel (#4), the Netherlands (#3), Norway (7 weeks @#1), Poland (#2), Sweden (#6), Switzerland (#2) and the UK (#4). The single also charted in Australia (#14), France (#36), and Italy (#54).
Sales and certifications
Jody Miller, Dolly Parton versions
The song has twice been a hit record on Billboard’s country chart. In 1973, Jody Miller reached #29 on the country charts and #41 on the adult contemporary chart.
In September 1981, Dolly Parton released a cover of the song as the third single from her 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs album. 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 # 14 on the U.S. country singles chart, and crossed over to the pop charts, where it reached # 77 on the Billboard Hot 100; it also reached # 30 on the U.S AC charts. 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
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 during the Wrong Side era. The references to New Orleans have been changed to Sin City, a reference to the negative impact gambling in Las Vegas can have. The song was a top ten hit on mainstream rock radio in the United States.
Possible real locations
Various places in New Orleans, Louisiana 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 fictitious place. One theory speculated the song is about a daughter who killed her father, an alcoholic gambler who had beaten his wife. Therefore, the House of the Rising Sun may be a jail-house, 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 late 19th-century “Rising Sun Hall” listed in late 19th century city directories on what is now Cherokee Street at the riverfront of the uptown Carrollton neighborhood, which seems to have been a building owned and used for meetings of a Social Aid & 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 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 guide book on New Orleans, asserts that the real house was at 1614 Esplanade Avenue between 1862 and 1874 and was purportedly named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant whose name translates from French as the rising sun.
It is also possible that the “House of the Rising Sun” is a metaphor for either the slave pens of the plantation, the plantation house, or the plantation itself, which were the subjects and themes of many traditional blues songs. Dave van Ronk claimed in his autobiography that he had seen pictures of the old Orleans Parish Women’s Prison, which had an entrance decorated with a rising sun design. He considered this proof that the House of the Rising Sun had been a nickname for the prison.
The role of the singer is variable. Earlier versions of the song are often sung from the woman’s perspective, a woman who followed a drunk or a gambler to New Orleans and became a prostitute in the House of the Rising Sun (or, depending on one’s interpretation, an inmate in a prison of the same name), such as in Joan Baez’s version on her self-titled 1960 debut album, or Jody Miller’s 1973 single. The Animals version was sung from a perspective of a man, for whom the house has been his ruin. Bob Dylan’s 1962 version and Shawn Mullins’ covered version on his album 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor are sung from the woman’s perspective, although Mullins occasionally changes the lyrics in live performances to reflect both perspectives, singing “It’s been the ruin of many a boy and girl, and me, oh God, I’m one.”
Not everyone, however, believes that the house actually existed. Pamela D. Arceneaux, a research librarian working 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.
It is also possible, in that gamblers are mentioned more than once in the song, that the House of the Rising Sun is a casino or bar with gambling within.