Study Guide

House of the Rising Sun Technique

  • Music

    While the guitar riff at the beginning of "House of the Rising Sun" may come first to mind when you think of the 1964 classic, the musical high point is really when Alan Price's organ takes the stage, first in the solo between the third and fourth verses, and then toward the end when it meets Burdon's powerful vocals head on.

    Price's organ playing did as much for the Vox Continental Organ as it did for Price. The "Connie" was introduced in 1962 and rapidly became a favorite among touring musicians. It approached the sound of a superior Hammond or Wurlitzer, but it was half the size. 

    The 1960s musicians dedicated to their Vox Continental included Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Mike Smith of the Dave Clark Five, Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and Doug Ingle of Iron Butterfly. This is a formidable pedigree, but it was Price's organ work in "House of the Rising Sun" that sent every would-be keyboard player to the Vox showroom.

    Not everything about this track worked out so well, though. A self-taught musician, Price arranged most of the Animals' music. When the time came to choose a credit to put on their "House" record for the arrangement, the band was told that there was only room for one name, so they put Price's. (Source, 148-149)

    This was the beginning of the end for the Animals. Price got all the royalties, and the other members were mad about it. (In retrospect, Burdon realizes that just crediting the arrangement to "The Animals" would have avoided this issue). Price left the band in 1965 and went on to other projects, including the Alan Price Set and a long solo career.

  • Setting

    Since the song talks about the "House of the Rising Sun" being "down in New Orleans," we can infer that the singer of this song is somewhere up from New Orleans—somewhere a little farther north. It makes sense, then, that this song seems to have been sung quite a bit in the Appalachian Mountain region. It's true that we can narrow down the influences on the Animals' version to renditions that most likely took form in the American South sometime in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. 

    Also, it's probably worth noting once again that there's no real House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans on record.

    But maybe the geographical setting of this song isn't that important. Over the last century, the song has been sung by musicians from all over America, and it was made famous by a British band. It's possible—though not proven—that the song might be rooted in English ballads that pre-dated the European settlement of America. The song has deals with the timeless, universal themes of personal regret and warnings of danger. It's bounced around so much precisely because misfortune, and pain, can happen anywhere.

    Maybe there is something particularly Southern about the lyrics, though. Warning people away from a place in New Orleans is warning them away from a city, and in the South, cities haven't historically been the highly praised of places. In the days of the early American republic, Thomas Jefferson's agrarian vision was nursed on an isolated hilltop in Virginia, his idealization of the yeoman farmer was matched by his fear of the wage-earning urban worker, and his celebration of rural values was matched by his condemnation of urban vices.

    Southern fears of the city were fed by the state of actual cities in the South: There were only a few, and there were very few roads or railroads making them readily accessible. In other words, most early American Southerners never saw a city of any significant size in their lifetime. In the decades after the Civil War, however, the insular character of the South began to break down. New railroads carried people to Northern and Southern cities alike—to Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and New Orleans. With the introduction of the affordable car in the 1920s, travel became even easier.

    It's not surprising, then, to find a song like "House of the Rising Sun" or "Rising Sun Blues" circulating with such energy in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. The warning issued to young men and women of the dangers down the road may resonate with people (especially parents) everywhere, but it makes particular sense in the American South of yesteryear.