Rolling Stone included the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" on its list of the greatest songs of all time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame declared the 1964 hit one of the songs that shaped rock and roll. And in 1999, the song was granted a Grammy Hall of Fame award.
But if there ever was an unlikely candidate for a number one hit, this is it. The Animals didn't come up with this song themselves: It's been sung in one form or another for at least 100 years, though possibly for hundreds. And then there's the subject matter. Radio stations were reluctant to play a tune with lyrics that are presumably about a New Orleans brothel. On top of that, the single clocks in at well over four minutes, which was much too long for a song on the air in those days.
Somehow, though, "House of the Rising Sun" made it past those obstacles and onto the charts. Once out of the world of folk music, it became ingrained in mainstream American consciousness. What's so compelling about this dark tale?
Let's start by stripping the song down to its most basic elements. It's not really a song about New Orleans; for one thing, nobody's sure if there ever was a real "House of the Rising Sun," and for another, the song talks about going "down" to New Orleans, so the speaker must actually be from somewhere else.
And it doesn't matter whether the song is about a brothel, or a prison (as has been suggested by at least one of the song's singers), or any other sordid place, because everybody can relate to the feeling of having done something they wish they hadn't. That's really the key to this song—the pain it expresses is universal. This is classic blues, and in fact, this song has also gone by the name "Rising Sun Blues" over the years. The warning, "Oh mother, tell your children / Not to do what I have done," sends shivers up our spines because it taps into a very basic awareness of danger.
This song traveled a long path before it made it all the way to the Animals. The earliest known recording was made by Clarence "Tom" Ashley in 1933. (Source, 22) Ashley was a Tennessee folk singer who sang a version of the song while traveling through the South with a patent medicine show during the first half of the century. His version featured a male protagonist, though gender in the song has changed frequently.
Next up was Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter of a Kentucky miner. In 1937, she sang the song for musicologist Alan Lomax on her neighbor's front porch. Turner's version warned women to stay away from the House of the Rising Sun. She sang of the ruin of "many a poor girl" and she pleaded with someone to tell her "baby sister never do like I have done." (You might notice that she sings in a major key, instead of the minor key we're familiar with from the Animals' version. Both keys are common in recordings of this song.)
Lomax, like his father John Lomax, was intent on capturing the folk songs of America's past before they were lost. He recorded Turner's rendition of "The Risin' Sun Blues" in Middlesboro, and he recorded similar versions of the song two more times before leaving Kentucky. (For an interesting discussion about folk music, authenticity, and the Lomaxes, check out this section of our module on Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi.") Additionally, Lomax recorded a man in England named Harry Cox singing a song called "She Was a Rum One," which is what Cox presented when asked for the song about the "rising sun." In that version, there's a lyric that goes, "If you go to Lowestoft, / And ask for the Rising Sun / There you'll find two whores / And my old woman's one" (Source, 25–26).
Some people have claimed that the song was originally an English folk song brought over with settlers coming to America, but other than this Cox version, there's no hard evidence of this.
No one whom Lomax talked to in the United States seemed to know where the song came from. Turner described it as something she heard her parents and grandparents sing. Ashley also knew little about its origins. Performing the song later in life (he made an additional recording around 1960), he simply said, "It's too old for me to talk about" (source, 29). A bit further west, other, far more bawdy, versions bubbled up out of the Ozarks. In these, it's generally clear that the song is about prostitutes.
All these references to brothels has led some to seek out the original "House" in New Orleans, but without much luck. One theory's that the brothel was located on St. Louis Street and was owned by a Marianne Le Soleil Levant (in French, her name means "The Rising Sun"). (Source, 226) But there's nothing in the historical record over the past two centuries to support the story—no business at that address, and nobody named Le Soleil Levant.
On the other hand, researchers did discover a Rising Sun Hotel that operated in the French quarter in the early-19th century. Located on Conti Street, the hotel promised gentlemen "attentive Servants...genuine good Liquors" and the best food that the "market or the season will afford." (Source, 229).
Neither of these sounded exactly like the house of song legend, but the old hotel, which burned down in 1822, at least offered room for the most excited speculation. The more scientifically oriented were impressed by the excavations of the hotel site in 2005 that turned up lots of broken liquor bottles and several suggestive rouge (makeup) pots. (Source, 228).
And now, back to the song itself.
Before the Animals picked it up, it was gaining momentum in the folk music world. In the 1940s, Josh White recorded a version. Woody Guthrie put in his two cents, as did Lead Belly and a bunch of others. Bob Dylan made a recording in 1962, based on the version sung by Dave Van Ronk, a folk singer. Joan Baez sang it her way, and Nina Simone put her signature spin on it as well.
As a teenager in northern England's Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Animals' lead singer Eric Burdon first heard the song performed by Johnny Handel, a local folk singer, but he and the other members of the band he joined in 1962 were also familiar with many of the recorded versions. Burdon says he was impressed most by Josh White's record; drummer John Steel recalls being inspired by Dylan's version (source, 145).
In 1964, the rhythm-and-blues-inspired band agreed that Price would put together an arrangement and the band would play it when they opened for Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis in the spring. When they debuted their version of the song, the audience reaction was huge; within weeks, they were in the studio, recording the song on one take.
It took a while for their record to get much radio play, because of its length and content, but it got a boost from the Animals' appearance on the British television show Ready Steady Go! (source, 149). It made it to number one on the Billboard charts. The song's power had overridden its unusualness for a pop song, and it's not hard to tell why. Burdon was pretty young, but as soon as he opened his mouth, he carried the song with what seemed like effortless intensity. There was a sort of disconnect here—it was almost hard to believe that listeners were really hearing this painful, melancholy tale from a bunch of British kids in matching suits.
Unfortunately, the band as it was then wouldn't last long. The crediting of only one name on the record for the arrangement—Alan Price's—caused tension within the band, because only one member was getting the royalties. (Although Price had in fact done much of the arranging, his was the only name listed simply because all of their names wouldn't fit, and no one had thought of the obvious solution of crediting "The Animals.")
Price left the band in 1965. He cited his fear of flying as a reason for leaving, saying that he didn't want to tour anymore, but band members suggested that the rift caused by "House" had something to do with it. (Source, 148–150)
Although the Animals made this song mainstream, and people are unlikely to forget that (you'll find a lot of claims on the internet that they wrote the song themselves), it's continued to undergo transformations in the years since. Rock band Frijid Pink released a now well-known version in 1969, and country music queen Dolly Parton tackled it as well in 1980.
There's room for this song to go on being reinterpreted by artists for years to come, and that's one of the things that makes it great. As for us, we're not so interested in whether a real House of the Rising Sun existed, or whether the tune did actually make it over from England. Rather, we're quite happy to see this song as a way to look at an American musical landscape where there's no right or wrong, or genuine or fake, but a whole bunch of artists who each have something to add to a timeless piece.
After all, songs like this are as much about the present, and future, as they are about the past.