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This song has an incredibly long and fascinating history. Folklorist Alan Lomax tracked its origins back to an old Child Ballad. Francis Child, a Harvard professor in the late 19th century, published a five volume work, originally titled “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads”, which eventually became know by the collector’s surname.
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According to folklorist Alan Lomax in his book Our Singing Country (1941), the melody of “The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional English ballad and the lyrics were written by Georgia Turner and Bert Martin (both from Kentucky). The song was first recorded in the 1920s by black bluesman Texas Alexander and later covered by Leadbelly, Charlie Byrd, Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, Henry Mancini, Dolly Parton, David Allan Coe, John Fahey, Waylon Jennings, Tim Hardin, Buster Poindexter, Marianne Faithful, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan . . . just to name a few.
¶ 17Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0On this 1937 disc sleeve, Lomax noted recording 16-year-old Georgia Turner from Middlesboro, Kentucky, singing the “Rising Sun Blues.” It later became famous as the iconic song “House of the Rising Sun”:
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Was The House of the Rising Sun really a brothel, and did it really exist? A guidebook called Offbeat New Orleans asserts that the real House of the Rising Sun was at 826-830 St. Louis Street, between 1862 and 1874. Purportedly, it was named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname translates to “The Rising Sun.” Based on other sources, it seems likely that this is just a legend. But who knows?
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Bob Dylan learned the arrangement of the song from Dave Van Ronk. New York Times critic Robert Shelton quotes Dylan as saying, “I always knew this song, but never really knew it until Dave Van Ronk sang it.” The story of Dylan “borrowing” Van Ronk’s arrangement is told by Van Ronk in his biography The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Van Ronk said that he turned down Dylan when he asked if he could record it using his arrangement because he was planning to record it himself for his next album. Van Ronk was outraged when Dylan then told him that it was too late because he had already done it. Van Ronk said he felt justice had been served when The Animals had a huge hit with their version of the song that was based on Dylan’s version.