There is a house in New Orleans
The house might be in New Orleans, but the song itself comes from...well, we're not really sure, exactly.
The British rockers the Animals recorded the most famous version of "The House of the Rising Sun" in 1964. But they were way late to the party.
The song is an American folk classic, likely dating back to the 19th century. And it might even have been adapted from an English folk ballad dating back to the 16th century. That version didn't mention New Orleans, of course, for the obvious reason that it didn't yet exist.
The first known recording of the song was laid down in Kentucky in the early 1930s. A few years later, famed folk musicologist Alan Lomax made his own recording (performed by a young woman named Georgia Turner) and archived it in the Smithsonian Institution. Later versions, inspired by Lomax, were recorded by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Nina Simone.
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
When the Animals recorded the song, there were several versions to draw from, and they chose to base theirs off of versions with a male protagonist.
In Georgia Turner's version of the song, which Alan Lomax made a recording of in 1937, she sang of "the ruin of many a poor girl" and offered her warning to young women, including her "baby sister." Neither she nor the Animals, though, was the first to revise the traditional lyrics. In fact, more than one version of the song had circulated from at least the early-20th century, so later artists had many lyrical renditions to pick and choose from.
A man named Clarence "Tom" Ashley is actually responsible for recording the first known version of the song, way back in 1933. Ashley began performing in a traveling patent medicine show in 1911, and "The Rising Sun Blues" was among the songs he sang. He favored a male speaker, and his version referred to the "many poor boy to destruction has gone." While he warns young men away from the House of the Rising Sun, his emphasis is less on the demon house and more on the "rounder" traveling "from town to town" and drinking. Ashley made another recording in 1960, accompanied by a man named Arthel "Doc" Watson. (Source, 140)
Of the Turner and Ashley versions of the song, Turner's seems to have been more popular. Hers is the version that both Lead Belly and Bob Dylan recorded. Dylan's version omits two stanzas and changes a handful of words, but Turner's "poor girl" remains at the center. That was all fine and good, except for the part where that wasn't really Dylan's version—he'd learned it from Dave Van Ronk, a folk singer in New York's Greenwich Village. Dylan never denied borrowing the arrangement from Van Ronk, but he failed to gain Van Ronk's permission before recording the song in 1962, something Van Ronk wasn't exactly happy about.
It didn't stay Dylan's for long, though. Van Ronk recounts, "Later on, when Eric Burdon and the Animals picked the song up from Bobby and recorded it, Bobby told me that he had to drop the song because everyone was accusing him of ripping it off of Eric Burdon!" (Source, 136).
Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he's satisfied
Is when he's on a drunk
Folk music is pretty fluid, and it's common to find similar lines even in different songs.
Folk music researchers have uncovered several renditions of the "House of the Rising Sun," also called "Rising Sun Blues." In addition, they've found a lot of songs that have lines strikingly similar to those in the Animals' version of "Rising Sun." For example, take these lines from "The Saw Mill Boy," an Arkansas-based song:
The only time that he's satisfied
Is when he's on a drunk
An' all he has in this whole wide world
Is a suitcase or a trunk.
That same song also includes lines very similar to those found in the older Georgia Turner version of "Rising Sun" that the Animals left out. In 1937, Turner sang:
Fills his glasses to the brim,
Passes them around.
Only pleasure he gets out of life
Is hobblin' from town to town.
In "The Saw Mill Boy," the narrator sings:
Go fill th' glasses to th' rim,
Go pass them early round,
We'll drink good luck to th' saw mill boy,
Who works ten hours around.
These similar lines are the only similarities that "The Saw Mill Boy" has to "The House of the Rising Sun" or "The Rising Sun Blues." The melody is completely different and the song isn't a warning to misguided youth (Source, 111–112). These commonalities, though, reveal the fluid and cross-fertilizing character of folk culture.
Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I'm goin' back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain
While most listeners believe that the House of the Rising Sun is implied to be a brothel, some have argued that it was a women's prison.
Dave Van Ronk, the Greenwich Village folk singer from whom Bob Dylan acquired his version of the song, was among those who believed that the House of the Rising Sun was a women's prison. He reached this conclusion after seeing an old photograph of the Orleans Parish prison: carved into the prison's stone doorway was a rising sun. (Source, 226)
There are no other historical records that support this interpretation of the song, but the lyrics do contain a hint at something prison-like: a "ball and chain" was a device commonly used to restrain prisoners.
The phrase "ball and chain," though, can also be used figuratively to describe many kinds of burdens or hindrances. You might have heard an unwanted spouse or significant other being referred to as a "ball and chain," and the phrase can also be used to describe an addiction. It's possible that it's used here to describe the narrator's addiction to alcohol or gambling.