“The House of the Rising Sun“
Sometimes called Rising Sun Blues, “The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional rock song.
It tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans; many versions also urge a sibling to avoid the same fate.
Recorded in 1964, the most successful commercial version was by the British rock group The Animals. To add, it became a number one hit on the UK Singles Chart and also in the United States and France. As a traditional folk song recorded by an electric rock band, it has been described as the “first folk-rock hit“.
Behind the song
Like many classic folk ballads, “The House of the Rising Sun” is of uncertain authorship. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads. Thematically, it has some resemblance to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake.
According to Alan Lomax, “Rising Sun” was used as the name of a bawdy house in two traditional English songs, and it was also a name for English pubs. Further, he suggested that the melody might be related to a 17th-century folk song, “Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave,” also known as “Matty Groves.” However, a survey by Bertrand Bronson showed no clear relationship between the two songs.
On the other hand, Lomax proposed that the location of the house was then relocated from England to New Orleans by white southern performers. However, Vance Randolph proposed an alternative French origin, the “rising sun” referring to the decorative use of the sunburst insignia dating to the time of Louis XIV, which was brought to North America by French immigrants.
Theories about the song
Historians have not been able to definitively identify “The House Of The Rising Sun.” However, here are the two most popular theories:
1. The song is about a brothel in New Orleans. “The House Of The Rising Sun” was named after Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (which means “Rising Sun” in French). It was opened for business from 1862 (occupation by Union troops) until 1874 when it was closed due to complaints by neighbors.
2. It’s about a women’s prison in New Orleans called the Orleans Parish women’s prison. It had an entrance gate adorned with rising sun artwork. This would explain the “ball and chain” lyrics in the song.
The Animals’ Version
An interview with Eric Burdon revealed that he first heard the song in a club in Newcastle, England. It was sung by the Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. Moreover, The Animals were on tour with Chuck Berry and chose it because they wanted something distinctive to sing.
Transposing the narrative of the song from the point of view of a woman, The Animals‘ version led into a life of degradation to that of a man whose father was now a gambler and drunkard, rather than the sweetheart in earlier versions.
During a joint concert tour with Chuck Berry, The Animals had begun featuring their arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun.” They used it as their closing number to differentiate themselves from acts that always closed with straight rockers. Surprisingly, it got a tremendous reaction from the audience. In addition, it convinced initially reluctant producer Mickie Most that it had hit potential. Between tour stops, the group went to a small recording studio on Kingsway in London to capture it.
The Animals had 13 more Top 40 hits in the US, becoming one of the most successful British Invasion bands in the United States. However, in 1968, they split up over various music and business issues.
Burdon stated in an interview,
“I don’t think that The Animals got a chance to evolve. We were the first to admit that we took Blues songs from American artists, but if the Animals had stuck together and worked together. Instead of worrying about who was getting all the money, we could have evolved more and come out with more music to be proud of.”
Watch The Animals perform this folk rock hit.