Today, rather than the “folk-like” songs from my last two posts, let’s talk about an actual folk song, one of my favorites: The House of the Rising Sun; or as it was originally known, The Rising Sun Blues.
There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun. It's been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, O God, for one.
The best known version of the song is the 1964 version, by The Animals:
In the Animals’ version, the singer is a male, the son of a gambler who has abandoned his wife and child for “The House of the Rising Sun” — either a gambling house or a bar. At least, that’s how I understand the story. One of the attractive aspects of this song is how ambiguous it is, both in its story line and in its origins. For one thing, who’s singing the song — a woman, or a man? And what’s happening?
The earliest recorded version of the song, by Clarence Ashley in 1933, also has a male protagonist. Georgia Turner’s version is from the female point of view. I’ve always understood her version to be about a girl who ran away with a man, a drunkard who abandoned her. She ended up as a prostitute, in a brothel called The Rising Sun. Other listeners say the woman in the song killed her lover, and that the Rising Sun is a woman’s prison. Dave van Ronk, who first used the arrangement of the song that is most familiar to us today, claimed that the gates of the old Orleans Parish Women’s Prison featured a decoration of a Rising Sun. Hence, the name.
Here’s the 1960 Joan Baez version. Her version uses a subset of the Georgia Turner lyrics.
Which story do you hear?
None of the early singers could identify the song’s origins. The song seems to have been known all over the South (Ashley was from Tennessee and Turner was from Kentucky), and the most that people seemed to know about it is that it was old. People have tried to find a Rising Sun gambling house or brothel in New Orleans. The closest candidate is a Rising Sun Hotel from the 1820s.
[The new owners will] maintain the character of giving the best entertainment, which this house has enjoyed for 20 years past. Gentlemen may here rely upon finding attentive Servants. The bar will be supplied with genuine good Liquors; and the Table, the fare will be of the best the market or the season will afford.
An archeological dig on the site in 2005 found, among other things, lots of liquor bottles and a large number of rouge pots.
Others (including Alan Price of The Animals, and supposedly Alan Lomax himself) believe that the song isn’t originally about New Orleans at all, but is a transplanted English folk song. Ted Anthony, in his book Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song, writes about a recording Lomax made in 1953 of an English farm laborer named Harry Cox. Cox sang Lomax a risqué little song called “She was a Rum One” about a man and a prostitute. One version of the song opens like this:
If you go to Lowestoft and ask for the Rising Sun there you'll find two old whores, and my old woman's one.
On paper, this first verse has a similar structure and meter to the opening of Rising Sun Blues. If you listen to Lomax’s original recording and interview, however, you’ll find it has a completely different tune, not to mention different subject matter. Quite a song, though.
And finally, just because I really like it: The Blind Boys of Alabama sing Amazing Grace, to the tune of Rising Sun.
History of the song from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Really.
The Association for Cultural Equity online archive: an online archive of Alan Lomax’s field recordings, interviews, and other work.