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House of the Rising Sun, before and after The Animals

The Animals - The house of the rising sun
The Animals - The house of the rising sun

House of the Rising Sun is one of the most famous examples of a folk song becoming a popular hit, the version by rock band The Animals now being considered a classic of the genre.

There is much more to this song, however, than their brilliant cover—the song has a long and fascinating history, and there are many other great versions of it to enjoy...

May not have originated in the U.S.

Though the song tells refers to the 'Rising Sun,' a house in New Orleans, it may have originated as an English folk song. 'Rising Sun' is often used as a name for pubs in the country and several English folk songs make reference to a bawdy houses with the name 'The Rising Sun.' This includes She Was a Rum One, with the impressively disreputable opening line "If you go to Lowestoft, and ask for The Rising Sun, There you'll find two old whores and my old woman is one." Others have located it in the English tradition of songs about everyday themes known as 'broadside ballads', in particular noting its similarity with The Unfortunate Rake

Brothel, jailhouse or dance hall. What and where was the 'Rising Sun?'

The song is ambiguous, so there has been much debate over its meaning. The opening line, which tells of a house that has 'been the ruin o many poor boy', suggest that the Rising Sun may be a brothel. Another interpretation is that the song refers to a woman who killed her father, 'a gamblin' man/ Down in New Orleans' and that the song is about her witnessing the sun rising from her jail.

Several real buildings in New Orleans may have been the 'Rising Sun.' These include a hotel on Conti Street that burned down in 1822 and that may have been used as a brothel; a dance hall called 'The Rising Sun' on Cherokee Street; or, in the 1860s, a restaurant on Decatur Street. It may, however, be that the 'Rising Sun' exists only in the song.

It was well-known before The Animals

Before The Animals the song was already well-known in the U.S. The first recording dates from the 1933 by  Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster, with versions following by Woody Guthrie (1941), Josh White (1942), Glenn Yarborough (1957) and many others.

The most important pre-Animals versions are those by Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. Dylan released his version in 1961:

He acknowledged, however, that he had learned it from Van Ronk. Van Ronk, who felt that Dylan had plagiarised his arrangement, released his version after Dylan:

One-take wonder

The most well-known version of the song was released by the British band The Animals in 1964. It was clearly indebted to Dylan, the lead guitarist saying that he simply arpeggiated Dylan’s chord sequence to create that haunting opening riff. It was probably one of the shortest ever recoding sessions, the version that was commercially released being recorded in one take, the whole session taking some fifteen minutes.

Longest single ever released

There was one small problem with The Animals' version, however—it was very long, coming in at a hefty 4 minutes 29 seconds, making it the longest single recorded up to that time. Some executives considered this too long, so in some markets, including the U.S., it was edited down to a little under three minutes. Both versions, however, were an enormous success, storming to number one in the UK, Canada, U.S. and several other countries:

Not the last word

Many versions of the song have followed. Most significant of these are those by Pink Floyd, who released a psychedelic version of the song in 1969:

and that by Dolly Parton, released in 1980:

Many other versions exist, including by Johnny Hallyday in French, by Columbian band Los Speakers in Spanish, several in German and one in Serbo-Croation by Miodrag "Miki" Jevremović. Despite this, the version by The Animals remains the most well-known, their arrangement becoming the definitive version of this folk classic.

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