The House Of The Rising Sun
No one knows for sure the provenance of the song known today as The House Of The Rising Sun. There are some names, however that connect the dots of the various iterations of the song. Clarence Ashley was a singer of folk songs who traveled the Appalachia area of America’s south during the 1920s with medicine shows. The shows, which were especially popular around the turn of the 20th century, would include musicians to draw a crowd and salesmen who would sell bottles of sweetened alcohol under the guise of medicine. Hence, the name “medicine shows.”
Clarence may have sung the song during these various stops. If he did, the townsfolk took the song and put their lyrics to it to make the song their own. Since there was no TV, radio or even roads in those days, the story was spread in song through the railroads, where workers were singing in unison while pounding the spikes into the ground.
The earliest recorded version dates back to September 6, 1933 by Clarence 'Tom' Ashley and Gwen Foster as Rising Sun Blues, and it was recorded again in 1935 by Homer Callahan as Rounder's Luck. Roy Acuff, who learned the song at medicine shows from Ashley, recorded it as Rising Sun on November 3, 1938. (1)
John and Alan Lomax were a father-son team of American folklorists who traveled the country preserving and recording traditional American folk songs for the Library of Congress. In September of 1937 in Middleboro, Kentucky, Alan recorded Georgia Turner, a sixteen year-old daughter of a miner singing a version of the song that closely resembles the version known today. The lyrics included “been the ruin of many a poor girl” and “never do as I have done.” (1)
With the evolution of folk music in the 1940s and 1950s, the song was recorded in numerous incarnations by such notable singers as The Almanac Singers featuring Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie (1941), Josh White (1942) and Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter (1944). Dave Van Ronk used White’s version as a base for his new version in the 50s and 60s, which in turn was picked up by young Bob Dylan for his debut album in 1962. (2) Singer/pianist Nina Simone recorded the song on her 1962 album Nina at the Village Gate. (3)
Meanwhile, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne located 277 miles north of London, the Animals, were formed when lead singer, Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo in 1963. The group was composed of Burdon (lead singer), Price (organ), John Steel (drums), Hilton Valentine (guitar) and Chas Chandler (bass). The group built a following at Newcastle’s Club-a-Go-Go and after they recorded a four-song EP, producer Mickie Most signed them to a contract with British EMI Records. (1)
As with many details surrounding the group, the song and its derivation, the facts are often contradictory, perhaps as time has faded the memories of those involved. Such is the case of the first time the different members of the group heard what was to become The House Of The Rising Sun. According to John Steel, “The song was first introduced into our crowd in Newcastle by a friend of mine called Bill Davison, the first guy to get the Bob Dylan album in 1962. No matter what Eric claims, that was the first time we ever heard The House Of The Rising Sun.” (4) Burdon states he first heard the song in 1957 when performed by British folk artist, Johnny Handel.
The Animals were booked to open for Chuck Berry on his upcoming tour in London from May 9 - May 31, 1964. Before they left for London, they spent a few days rehearsing some songs in Newcastle. One of those songs was The House Of The Rising Sun. “We worked out the parts for everybody, which was the way we eventually recorded it,” said John Steel. “Alan said Hilton should play an acoustic strumming style. Hilton had developed this arpeggio thing. Alan stormed off, because we opted for Hilton’s version. By the time he came back, all he had to do was drop in the organ solo. We’d sorted the rest of it out. Eric rewrote the lyrics (making the usually female fallen protagonist a man), because we knew we couldn’t get a song about a prostitute on the BBC. My drum-pattern was from Jimmy Smith’s Walk On The Wild Side. Everybody had a part in it. (4) According to Valentine, the Animals “borrowed” the chord sequence from Dylan and used the guitar arpeggios instead of strumming. (5)
One of the tour posters from May of 1964.
No photo credit available.
Once the group joined the tour, they chose not to compete against the headliner with their material. “We knew we couldn’t out rock Chuck, that was impossible. We wanted to do something moodier and slower. House…was the obvious choice,” reasoned Hilton. (4)
The audience acceptance to House was so positive, the group knew the song had to be recorded and released immediately. “Every night, House got our biggest reaction. People were leaving the theater singing it. We could hear them through the dressing-room window,” recalled Burdon. (4)
Once again, time clouded the memories of some of the band members. According to Hilton Valentine, “We were traveling straight from Blackpool overnight, to either the Isle of Man or Jersey. We went through London, and cut an LP, including The House Of The Rising Sun, in about an hour-and-a-half.” Not so, said John Steel. “We didn’t have time to do a whole album. I’ve got letters I sent to my then-girlfriend which say we didn’t.”
Eric Burdon remembered the details in what appears to be the best explanation of how The House Of The Rising Sun was eventually recorded. “We’d done a gig the night before in Manchester. We felt the crowd’s acceptance and we knew that we had to record this song. That night, we decided to jump on the milk train to London, dragging all our gear along and arriving at King’s Cross Station. We bribed a British Railways guy for the use of a handcart, put the gear on it and pushed it through the empty, early morning streets. It looked like a scene from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Arriving at the studio we carried the equipment downstairs, set it up and we were ready to go for it, around 11:30 AM. We were underground, in what I was told later was part of Winston Churchill’s WWII mapping room. The concrete room was cold and dark. I can’t recall Mickie Most being at the session. If he was, he let the band get on with it. He contributed very little as producer then.” (4)
Again, depending on the source, the details about the actual recording of the song are once again, hazy. “The Animals recorded Rising Sun at a four-track Kingsway, London studio (De Lane Lee Studio) in two takes that took just ten minutes,” wrote author Steve Sullivan. (1) John Steel countered that statement. “One take did it, and Mickie said, ‘Come in and listen to this. That’s a hit.’ (That part regarding Most conflicts with Burdon’s recollection.) “We all thought we’d really captured the mood in the studio,” reminisced Hilton Valentine. “I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be a #1 record.’” (4)
Then there were other problems, including one that the song was too long. “Dave Siddle, the engineer, turned to Mickie and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. It’s four-and-a-half minutes.’ Mickie to his credit said, ‘Oh, the hell with that. We’re in the vinyl age now!’” Steel added.
Valentine recalled, “The BBC said that they wouldn’t play it as it was too long. It (their objection) was possibly because it was about a brothel. According to Steel, “We got to do it on Ready Steady Go! (the British equivalent to American Bandstand), which created such a huge surge in the shops, the BBC had to change their minds. Within three weeks it was #1. Eric Burdon chimed in with his opinion. “It was too sexy, too long for a single, wrong subject matter – and no idea how to promote it. Thanks to the crew at Ready Steady Go! and the fans at the Chuck Berry gigs, it ended up right in the corner of the net. It broke The Beatles’ grip on the #1 spot, for a while.” (4)
The House Of The Rising Sun was a #1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It entered the Billboard chart on August 8th, 1964 where it stayed for 11 weeks and entered the #1 slot on September 5th for a three-week stay. (6) (7)
Burdon once commented the song was such a big hit that it was a tough act to follow. (8) Perhaps it was. There was another problem on the horizon that would lead to the group’s breakup in May of 1965. Hilton Valentine remembers it well. “We were in a rehearsal studio in London when manager Mike Jefferey came in and said it was too long to put “Trad. Arranged by”… with all our names on the record. And we’ll sort the division of the money out later.” (4) That later never came. Alan Price was the only name credited with the song.
According to Burdon, “Can you believe that we were so naïve? Well… we were. We all could have done with the extra cash… but I guess Alan Price felt he needed it more than anyone else. Valentine remembered a particular instance. “One day (in 1965) Pricey up and left the band. He didn’t give any notice. Chas said, ‘He must’ve got his first royalty check.’ We were five guys from Newcastle. We were all buddies. And, we were ripped off by everybody and their mother. But to be ripped off within the group, our circle – it was a bit sad.”
The issue festered for a number of years but the members of the original group tried one more time to correct the distribution of the writing royalties. Burdon stated, “Many years later, on the ’83 Animals reunion tour, Chas Chandler called a meeting. He proposed that all the royalties from that day on be shared among the original members. Alan Price’s reaction was ‘Go **** yourself,’ or words to that effect. He got up and left.” John Steel mentioned, “It rankled more with Hilton and Eric than anybody else. Eric still explodes about it. And I know it ate away at Hilton for a long time.” To this day, Alan Price receives all writer royalties on The House Of The Rising Sun.
With numerous personnel changes, the Animals disbanded in 1968 though they hit the Billboard chart with The Night during their reunion tour in 1983. All told they charted 19 times with three songs entering the top ten. The House Of The Rising Sun was their only #1 hit. (6)
The Animals - 1964 L-R: John Steel, Alan Price, Eric Burdon, Chas Chandler and Hilton Valentine.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives.
Was there ever an establishment in New Orleans that inspired the lyrics to this song? Depends on whom you ask. If you were to ask five different locals in New Orleans, there’s a chance that you would get five different answers. Also, it would be difficult to determine if the House of the Rising Sun existed, as the term may have been one of many euphemisms to describe a house of ill repute. Still, there were establishments that existed referencing the name Rising Sun. The following paragraphs from The House Of The Rising Sun – the History and the Song from the website The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Earth Edition best tell the story.
There is a house located at number 826-830 St Louis Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans which is current owners claim is the famed, former House of the Rising Sun Brothel, originally run by a Madam named Marianne LeSoliel Levant (whose surname translates from French into Rising Sun), from 1862 through 1874. The owners, however, can offer no solid proof of this claim.
Newspaper advertisements in 1838 also mention a Rising Sun Coffee House on Decatur Street in the city, but this establishment never had a claim of fame as a brothel or gambling hall, and it is no longer in existence.
There was a Rising Sun Hall in the 1890s, which served as a 'benevolent association' hall; it booked dances and rented rooms to musicians. These halls and clubs were the very birthplace of jazz. It is conceivable that prostitution and gambling occurred in the backrooms of these halls, with the constant transience of travelling musicians. This is purely speculation though, as no oral or written history exists about these goings-on.
In the early 1800s there was The Rising Sun Hotel, located on Conti Street in the heart of the French Quarter. During its time of operation, the hotel was sold to new owners. In January 1821, an advertisement for the hotel in the Louisiana Gazette states the new owners will 'maintain the character of giving the best entertainment, which this house has enjoyed for 20 years past.' In 1822, the hotel burned to the ground, and was never rebuilt.
So, does any of this prove there was an actual brothel named The House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans? According to Pamela D. Arceneaux, a well-respected research librarian who works at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans and helps maintain the Historic New Orleans Collection, er... no. She is quoted in numerous articles as saying on the subject:
“I have made a study of the history of prostitution in New Orleans and have often confronted the perennial question, 'Where is the House of the Rising Sun?' without finding a satisfactory answer. Although it is generally assumed that the singer is referring to a brothel, there is actually nothing in the lyrics that indicate that the 'house' is a brothel. Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics.” (4)
The earliest recorded version dates back to September 6, 1933 by Clarence 'Tom' Ashley and Gwen Foster as Rising Sun Blues.
Though The House Of The Rising Sun was originally recorded in mono, this video presents a digitally extracted version of the song.
1) Sullivan, Steve, Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 1, October 1, 2013, Page 98.
2) h2g2, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: Earth Edition, House of the Rising Sun, the History and the Song, July 28, 2006, Link.
3) Wikipedia, The Animals, Link.
4) Hasted, Nick, Uncut, The Making Of… The Animals’ The House Of The Rising Sun, March 25, 2013, Link.
5) Anthony, Ted, Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song, July 13, 2007, Pages 142-155.
6) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 19.
7) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
8) Bessman, Jim, Liner Notes from The Animals Retrospective, 2004.
L-R: Chas Chandler, Hilton Valentine, John Steel, Eric Burdon and Alan Price.
Photo courtesy of mediocrates posted Album Art Exchange.