It tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans. The most successful commercial version, recorded in 1964 by the English rock group The Animals, was a number one hit in the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Canada.
Like many classic folk ballads, the authorship of “The House of the Rising Sun” is uncertain. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads such as The Unfortunate Rake of the 18th century and that English emigrants took the song to America where it was adapted to its later New Orleans setting. Alan Price of The Animals has even claimed that the song was originally a sixteenth-century English folk song about a Soho brothel.
The oldest known existing recording is by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it for Vocalion Records in 1934. Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley.
The song was among those collected by folklorist Alan Lomax, who, along with his father, was a curator of the Archive of American Folk Song for the Library of Congress. On an expedition with his wife to eastern Kentucky, Lomax set up his recording equipment in Middlesborough, Kentucky, in the house of a singer and activist named Tilman Cadle. In 1937 he recorded a performance by Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter of a local miner.
He called it The Rising Sun Blues. Lomax later recorded a different version sung by Bert Martin and a third sung by Daw Henson, both eastern Kentucky singers. In his 1941 songbook Our Singing Country, Lomax credits the lyrics to Turner, with reference to Martin’s version. According to his later writing, the melody bears similarities to the traditional English ballad, “Matty Groves”.
Roy Acuff, an “early-day friend and apprentice” of Ashley, learned it from him and later recorded it as “Rising Sun”. In 1941, Woody Guthrie recorded a version. A recording made in 1947 by Josh White, who is also credited with having written new words and music that have subsequently been popularized in the versions made by many other later artists, was released by Mercury Records in 1950. Lead Belly recorded two versions of the song in February 1944 and in October 1948, called “In New Orleans” and “The House of the Rising Sun” respectively; the latter was recorded in sessions that later became the album Lead Belly’s Last Sessions (1994, Smithsonian Folkways).
An interview with Eric Burdon revealed that he first heard the song in a club in Newcastle, England, where it was sung by the Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. The Animals were on tour with Chuck Berry and chose it because they wanted something distinctive to sing.
This interview refutes assertions that the inspiration for their arrangement came from Bob Dylan. The band enjoyed a huge hit with the song, much to Dylan’s chagrin when his version was referred to as a cover. The irony of this was not lost on Dave Van Ronk, who said the whole issue was a “tempest in a teapot,” and that Dylan stopped playing the song after The Animals’ hit because fans accused Dylan of plagiarism. Dylan has said he first heard The Animals’ version on his car radio and “jumped out of his car seat” because he liked it so much.
Dave Marsh described The Animals’ take on “The House of the Rising Sun” as “…the first folk-rock hit,” sounding “…as if they’d connected the ancient tune to a live wire.” Writer Ralph McLean of the BBC agreed that, “It was arguably the first folk rock tune,” calling it “a revolutionary single” after which “the face of modern music was changed forever.” Van Ronk claims that this version was based on his arrangement of the song. (source Wikipedia)
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