Lost Rock n Roll Stories: The Genius Behind “House of the Rising Sun”
It was a warm spring evening, May 1964. At a small club, Chuck Berry, the famous “Father of Rock n Roll” was preparing for yet another of his magnificent performances that captured the minds of the American youth during the late 50s. While he was getting ready to amaze his audience, a small English rock band was on stage opening the show for him. This band was called “The Animals” and while a relatively unknown group by then, they were a few minutes away from writing history.
The Animals knew that there was no way they could win the audience. After all, they were opening for Chuck Berry and everybody knew that you simply can’t outrock Chuck Berry! Instead, they decided to do something different for their outro…
The lights came out and a single red spotlight appeared, pointing directly at Eric Burdon — the band’s singer. From the midst of darkness guitarist Hilton Valentine started playing an Am arpeggio, which evolved into a C chord, then a D, and finally an F. Eric took a deep breath, and from the depth of his chest came a deep, rusty voice, singing what would become one of humanity’s most recognized lyrics:
“There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one…”
It was during this performance that the broad world was introduced to “House of the Rising Sun”. I won’t try to give you a context of how famous this song is in the music world. After all, if you hadn’t already heard it, you would probably not be there in the first place. “House of the Rising Sun” has been heard a million times whether it was live, on the radio, or the TV. It has been covered by thousands of artists ranging from Bob Dylan and country stars like Dolly Parton to metal bands such as Five Finger Death Punch and musician White Buffalo, whose cover was featured in the famous TV series “Sons of Anarchy”. The story about the mysterious house in New Orleans is featured in folk, rock, metal, blues, and many other music genres and every person in the world has sung the above lyrics at least once in their lives.
But from all these different versions, it is the Animals’ iconic version that has stuck with the world and made the song a worldwide hit. So, the question is: how the Animals managed to immortalize it?
To answer the above, we need first to understand what is the “House of the Rising Sun”. Here, the answer gets tricky. The song’s origins remain unknown, its roots tracing back centuries ago. Its earliest recording was by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it on September 6, 1933, under the title “Rising Sun Blues”. But by this point, it was already a known tune, with written sources claiming that it was known to the American common folk at least as early as the 19th century. From there the true origins of the song are lost in the midst of time, with some musicologists suggesting that it was a common 19th century folk ballad, while others claim that it goes back to the 17th century Europe and shares common points with the old English ballads, which crossed the Atlantic along with the first British colonists!
The identity of the famous house also remains a mystery. Some believe it was a tavern, a gambling house, or a hotel somewhere in New Orleans with “Rising Sun” being the building’s name. Of course, there have been numerous locations in New Orleans that claim to be the authentic house, but none of them has sufficient historical proof.
Other myths state that there was actualy a French woman called Madame Marianne “LeSoleil Levant”, meaning “Rising Sun” in French, who owned a brothel back in 1862, in what is today the “Nolan Art House”. We should not forget that New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company. At the time, France was ruled by the Bourbon dynasty, with king Louis XIV (who reigned from 1654 to 1715) being nicknamed “the Sun King” and having a rising sun as an insignia. It is possible that the name traces its origins back to France.
Others, inspired by the song’s last phrase which states that “I’m going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain” think “Rising Sun” was a women’s prison with a sun insignia on its door. This theory is reinforced by the identity of the narrator who sings the song. In the earlier versions, the narrator is a woman, or a woman and a man who exchange lines. The earlier verses also include phrases such as “Going back to spend the rest of my life beneath that Rising Sun” which might indicate that the house was indeed a prison. The majority of musicologists and folk experts however believe that it probably was a pub either in New Orleans or back in England that gave the song its name, since “Rising Sun” was a common name for pubs and bars back then.
By now, we understand that “House of the Rising Sun” had a complex story and lots of different adaptations even before the Animals covered it. So, why did it stick with them? What was so special about a small band from Newcastle?
To answer this you need to go and listen again to the song. Burdon’s voice, equipped with that sweet and rusty tone of smoked whiskey and cigars, narrates the story with a gentle touch. It is the story of a young rambler whose father is a gambler and his mother a poor tailor. The story is somewhat of a personal experience, as Burdon and the rest of the band came from poor middle-class families. During most of the song, Burdon hides his emotions of rage and sadness behind his powerful voice. Sometimes he lets the worlds run out, yet he soon restrains them.
The song’s peak comes near the end when Burdon sings “Well, I got one foot on the platform” and the whole band speeds up. Valentine starts strumming full chords, while Alan Price — the group’s founder and talented organ player — starts playing the first notes of what would be a great organ solo. Burdon lets his emotions free, his voice instantly fills with anger, rage, and sorrow, and he almost screams. Every member gives his heart and soul through the last phrase, where the narrator returns to the House he so much despises. And this is the moment when the epiphany strikes and you get the reason why the song is forever stuck in our minds as an Animals’ hit:
“House of the Rising Sun” narrates an immortal theme, an old favorite plot, the concept of the “Fallen Hero”. The narrator, a common person, is defeated and cannot escape his fate. He/she accepts his destiny and returns to the place of his/hers final demise, because there is no hope left, no other alternative open. “House of the Rising Sun” is the tragedy of the person who struggled his whole life and no matter how hard he tried to escape his sinful past, he is finally defeated. He knows that he will “wear that ball and chain”, yet he cannot escape his fate, for he has lost the battle. This theme is present in every great tragedy from the dawn of mankind. The dual emotions of mankind are captured in a single moment with Burdon’s voice accepting his fate in sorrow and frustation, while the band (and mostly the organ) with its music captures the inner fight inside his head, the wild emotions who fight to get out, urging him to run away. He wants to escape. Yet he can’t…
As he finally jumps on the train back to New Orleans, Valentine and Price start playing a simple two-chord transition between an A minor and an E minor, mimicking the monotonous sound of the train as it leaves the station with its final destination being the House of the Rising Sun, the “Demise of Humanity”.
A pergect tragedy…
An immortal story…
A great song…
All captured by a small rock band in under four minutes and ten seconds…
Begvilia, J., (2022), Behind The Song Lyrics: “House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals, available at https://americansongwriter.com/house-of-the-rising-sun-the-animals-behind-lyrics-meaning/, (last access: 19/05/2022)
Marshall, M., (2011), A Brief History of the “House of the Rising Sun”, available at https://www.americanbluesscene.com/2011/11/a-brief-history-of-house-of-the-rising-sun/, (last access: 19/05/2022)
Andrews, S., (2017), The original song ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ is older than New Orleans, available at https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/01/21/the-original-song-the-house-of-the-rising-sun-is-older-than-new-orleans/, (last access: 19/05/2022)
Yaffe, A., The House of the Rising Sun: A Legend in Folklore, available at https://musicoholics.com/song-meanings/the-house-of-the-rising-sun-a-legend-in-folklore/, (last access: 19/05/2022)