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The Story Behind the Folk and Rock Song, "The House of the Rising Sun"

"The House of the Rising Sun," an old folk song that became a very popular song by many artists from many genres

The traditional folk song The House of the Rising Sun, also known as Rising Sun Blues, varies in lyrics from song version to song version composed throughout history, but it primarily talks about a life spent in the wrong way. The British rock group, The Animals, released a commercial version in 1964, which reached the first position as it became very popular in France, the UK, and the USA on the Singles Charts. Touted as the "first folk-rock hit” by rock bands, The House of the Rising Sun has since become one of the most recognizable and famous folk songs of the 20th century. But before The Animals rendered it in their vision, its history went back to centuries past, with musicologists agreeing with the adaptation of the broadside ballad tradition. These ballads were very popular in the 19th and earlier centuries and differed from regular ballads as they dealt with topics of wonders, religion, love, and legends. The song was first mentioned in the “Louisiana Gazette” in New Orleans in 1821, where an advertisement appeared for the Rising Sun Hotel.

Rising sun & a little house

The House of the Rising Sun is considered by many to resemble “The Unfortunate Rake”, which is a folk song from the 16th century. The oldest known version of this involve the tale of a young man’s health deteriorating from syphilis. There are many sources that say that the original folk song originated in France, because of the use of the sunburst insignia in a decorative fashion during Louis XIV's reign. Robert Winslow Gordon was responsible for the first printed lyrics in 1925 when it was published in the Adventure Magazine in the “Old Songs Men Have Sung” column.

Renowned musicologist Alan Lomax recorded The Rising Sun Blues in 1937, providing credits to Georgia Turner and Bert Martin, of Middlesboro and Manchester, respectively. Lomax’s 1941 book “Our Singing Country” has the lyrics in them. It has been widely speculated that the song was originally from England, Scotland or Ireland, and British settlers in the U.S. brought it with them. The words for this song could have been altered in between, and the earliest recorded version was produced by Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley in 1932 as Rising Sun Blues, and then again as Rounder’s Luck by the Callahan Brothers in 1934. Going forward, we also have Roscoe Holcomb, who produced a recording of the same as House in New Orleans, and then Dillard Chandler published his Sport in New Orleans. Subsequent to these, Roy Acuff, a great country singer, recorded his version of The Rising Sun in 1938.

The Animals were an R & B band from the 60s, and their classic version of The House of the Rising Sun became the longest recording to date on a 45-rpm single. It became a major hit throughout the world. This was a novelty in that a traditional folk song was recorded for the very first time by an electric rock group. In the opinion of Dave Marsh, an American music critic and talk show host, the band built a successful connection between a live wire and an ancient tune. Though originally intended as a woman’s character degradation, The Animals' version of it is about a young man’s descent into alcoholism and gambling. 

Additional recordings of The House of the Rising Sun include versions of different singers such as Woody Guthrie (1941), Bob Dylan (1961), Frijid Pink (1970), Santa Esmeralda (1978) and Dolly Parton (1981). Other singers who associated themselves with the song, were Tony Rice, Mike Auldridge, The Chambers Brothers, Johnny Hallyday, Dave Von Ronk, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and numerous others. Even the recordings are varied as there have been different styles involved, including old timey, folk, blues, R&B, Cajun, Latin, reggae, disco, punk, rock and country. 

The House of the Rising Sun has been around for centuries. It has gained transatlantic popularity and fame over decades of the 20th century. Considered to be one that has inspired generations of singers and a multitude of renditions, this song has attained legendary status among musicians and historians alike. 

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