|Back in the early
20s, the name "Rising Sun" was popularly attributed to brothels in
our Anglo/American culture. 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. |
starts with the fact that no member of the band The
Animals wrote the lyrics nor music of "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 :
There is a house in New Orleans
the Rising Sun.
It's been the ruin of many a poor girl,
me, O God, for one.
If I had listened what Mamma
I'd 'a' been at home today.
Being so young and foolish,
let a rambler lead me astray.
(Webmaster note: Go tell my baby sister
why the use of the
word boy here,
if the song is about a
never do like I have done
shun that house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun.
My mother she's a tailor;
she sold those new blue
My sweetheart, he's a drunkard, Lord, Lord,
in New Orleans.
The only thing a drunkard needs
suitcase and a trunk.
The only time he's satisfied
he's on a drunk.
Fills his glasses to the brim,
only pleasure he gets out of life
is hoboin' from
town to town.
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.
Going back to New Orleans,
my race is
Going back to spend the rest of my days
that Rising Sun.
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
lead singer of The Animals, Eric Burdon, made the song
popular in the 60s, 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."
NOTE: I have a copy of Dolly
Parton's rendition of the song and while she does use some of
these lyrics (as above); she also made lyric changes in her
of the Rising Sun is a song so steeped in American folklore and
tradition that it’s almost impossible to put a date on its origins.
It is possible however to trace back the exact moment when it
stepped into 20th century popular culture, that date was September
15, 1937, and it all happened in Middlesboro, not Middlesbrough in
the north east of England, although the north east of England does
play it’s part in the story some three decades later. No, it all
began in Middlesboro, Kentucky when a music historian by the name of
Alan Lomax arrived at the doorstep of a poor miner’s daughter by the
name of Georgia Turner. Lomax was making recordings of popular folk
songs sung by ordinary people in their natural environments for the
Library of Congress and his travels brought him to little Georgia
who was just 16, he hulked out his cumbersome presto reproducer
recording machine and she sang her favourite sad song for him, an
old bluesy folk tune about living a life of sin called Rising Son
Blues. It had been about for years but never committed to tape
before, indeed Lomax believed it dated back to 1600’s England while
others dated it to the American Civil war, either way history had
The song was recorded in 1937, from there the
legendary Lomax put the song in a songbook and it spread like
wildfire through the folk music scene on the east coast with
versions springing up in the 1940’s from the likes of Pete Seeger,
Woody Guthrie and bluesman Josh White. Not bad for a song warning
about the perils of prostitution eh? The House of the Rising Sun was
traditionally a euphemism for a bordello in English circles, and the
song is really little more than a tale of woe concerning a womans'
decline into the oldest profession in the world. Amazing that no one
really picked up on that and censored the whole thing from the
start! With every passing year the fame of the song grew until Bob
Dylan covered it on his debut album (calling it House of the Rising
Sun) and in 1964, a band of R&B reprobates from Newcastle in the
north east of England called The Animals came to record it
and the face of modern music was changed forever.
Chas Chandler of the band heard the Josh White version, not the Bob
Dylan version as is often thought. Eric Burdon has famously been
quoted as saying, the bands' famous producer Mickie Most "did
nothing but nod his head when the song was being recorded";
something that Most himself doesn’t really deny. It was a
revolutionary single, it was over four minutes for a start - a
length unheard of in pop circles. But more than anything, it was the
wonderful arrangement that really sold it as something different.
The Animals electric version of Georgia Turner’s favourite
tune swept across the world, taking them to number one at home and
also hitting the top spot Stateside on September 5, 1964, replacing
the Supremes ‘Where did our Love Go’ at number one on the
billboard charts. It was arguably the first folk rock tune, Bob
Dylan loved it so much he decided to drop the acoustic sound he was
famous for and took up the electric sound for his next album
Bringing it All Back Home - pop music thus changed forever.
The song has also got more than its fair share of celebrity fans,
it’s Melvyn Braggs' favourite tune ever.
In the years since,
The Animals version has caused any amount of legal wrangling
because Alan Price took the arrangers credit for the keyboard
refrain he added to the song, arguably the Hilton Valentine guitar
work is just as influential (just ask anyone who has ever learned
guitar and they will tell you they learnt that famous riff!) but he
never made a penny from it, the band still hold grudges about the
credit to this day.
Ever since that break through hit in
1964, the song has been recorded in disco style, Cajun style, there
are punk, jazz, even easy listening versions of it - even the hip
hop world has embraced the tune with Wyclef Jean recently recording
a version. (There are at least 250 artists who recorded the song.)
Needless to say every old building in New Orleans claims to be that
fateful House of the Rising Sun, but in reality it’s impossible to
judge if it’s all just to get publicity and encourage tourism.
As we remember the song with that immortal opening line
"there is a house in New Orleans…" it's worth remembering that
the woman who sang that very first recorded version; Georgia Turner
died penniless of emphysema in 1969. She was just 48 years old, she
made just 117.50 dollars from the song in royalties, a sobering
thought when you think how famous the song is now. Written by
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