The House of the Rising Sun Original
“The House of the Rising Sun” tells a tale of life gone wrong in New Orleans. In 1964 by British rock group the Animals made the song a number one hit in the UK, US and Canada. In a period where R&B was transitioning to rock, It is considered the first folk-rock hit. But what about the unknown original version of this song?
A Traditional Folk Song
The Animals based their version of the “The House of the Rising Sun” on a traditional folk song with unknown origins. No-one really knows if it was English, American or even French. The actual “house” could have been a bawdy house or a pub. At any rate, the folk song is older than the city of New Orleans, which was founded in 1718. The lyrics have varied over the years, and the protagonist in the song, while usually a woman, has been either a prostitute or a prisoner.
It’s said that “The House of the Rising Sun” is based on the tradition of broadside ballads. While similar to traditional ballads, broadside ballads had a less “epic” and “artistic” nature. Typical topics included love, religion, drinking songs, legends and early journalism.
In 1925, folklorist Robert Winslow Gordon printed the oldest published version of the lyrics of the song that became “The House of the Rising Sun” in a column “Old Songs Men Have Sung” in Adventure magazine.
Now let’s look at the first recorded version of “The House of the Rising Sun”, the unknown original version of the Animals’ hit song?
The oldest known recording of the song was by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster. In 1933, they recorded “Rising Sun Blues”, a song Ashley learnt from his grandfather. A guitar plays a simple but melodic tune, accompanied by violins. Ashley sings in a “hillbilly” accent that sounds as old-fashioned as the folk song itself. This first recorded version of “Rising Sun Blues” is now a folklore treasure.
After its initial release, other talented artists recorded “Rising Sun Blues”, including:
- Woody Guthrie, Josh White and Lead Belly in the 1940s
- Glenn Yarbrough, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger and Andy Griffith in the 1950s
- Miriam Makeba, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan in the 1960s
You can read more on the detailed and interesting history of “The House of the Rising Sun” here.
The Animals’ Version
The Animals vocalist Eric Burdon first heard “The House of the Rising Sun” played in a nightclub in Newcastle, England when the band was on tour with Chuck Berry. They thought it would make a good distinctive song to sing on the tour. They were right.
After perfecting the song on tour, the Animals recorded “The House of the Rising Sun” in one take in May 1964. They changed the song’s protagonist from a woman living in degradation to the son of a gambler and a drunk. This was to make the song more radio-friendly. To make it even more radio-friendly the original four and a half minute track was edited down to under three minutes for America, the typical length of popular songs at the time. The UK version remained at its full length and became the longest number one hit for its time.
The Animals’ version of “The House of the Rising Sun” was a breakthrough hit in both the UK and US (the first British invasion number not by the Beatles). It became the Animals’ signature song.
The song opens with a winding A-minor arpeggio played on electric guitar by Hilton Valentine. This is one of the most iconic and recognisable riffs in music history.
The video clip features the Animals dressed in brown suits and yellow shirts awkwardly positioned around the room. They look like schoolboys until you hear Burdon sing. His voice is emotional but unforced, even during the bridge when he’s pretty much yelling.
For a good review of the Animals’ version of “The House of the Rising Sun”, check out this article.
So that’s “The House of the Rising Sun”: a folk song of unknown origin, then an unknown original first recorded by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster. Then made a famous transatlantic hit with an iconic opening riff by the Animals.
The definition of original versions, when it comes to traditional folk songs, is discussed here.