House of the Rising Sun

 

Commentary

Alan LomaxThis 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 nineteenth century, published a five-volume work, originally titled “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads”, which eventually became know by the collector’s surname.

The website The Straight Dope (their motto is “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 (it’s taking longer than we thought)” provides a succinct summary of the history of the song:

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.

Here are the traditional lyrics (from Lomax’s book):

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.

If I had listened what Mamma said,
I’d ‘a’ been at home today.
Being so young and foolish, poor boy,
let a rambler lead me astray.

Go tell my baby sister
never do like I have done
to shun that house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun.

My mother she’s a tailor;
she sold those new blue jeans.
My sweetheart, he’s a drunkard, Lord, Lord,
drinks down in New Orleans.

The only thing a drunkard needs
is a suitcase and a trunk.
The only time he’s satisfied
is when he’s on a drunk.

Fills his glasses to the brim,
passes them around
only pleasure he gets out of life
is hoboin’ from town to town.

One foot is on the platform
and the other one on the train.
I’m going back to New Orleans
to wear that ball and chain.

Going back to New Orleans,
my race is almost run.
Going back to spend the rest of my days
beneath that Rising Sun.

 

On 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”:
On this 1937 disc sleeve, Lomax mentions 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”:

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 story is just a legend.  Good one though.

Bob Dylan learned his version 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. Van Ronk was outraged when Dylan then told him he had already done it. Van Ronk said he felt justice had been served when The Animals had a huge hit with Dylan’s version.

Dylan cut another version  during the recording of his 1974 Planet Waves album and another during the making of his film Renaldo and Clara. The original is the best.

A live version from 2007.

Dylan  with Petty and the Heartbreakers.

The classic version by The Animals.

 

 


 

Lyrics

There is a house down in New Orleans they call the rising sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, oh God, I’m one.

My mother was a tailor, she sowed sewed these new blue jeans
My sweetheart was a gambler, Lord, down in New Orleans.

Now the only thing a gambler needs is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time when he’s satisfied is when he’s on a drunk.

He fills his glasses up to the brim and he’ll pass the cards around
And the only pleasure he gets out of life is rambling from town to town

Oh tell my baby sister not to do what I have done
But shun that house in New Orleans they call the rising sun.

Well with one foot on the platform and the other foot on the train
I’m going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain.

I’m going back to New Orleans, my race is almost run
I’m going back to end my life down in the rising sun.

There is a house in New Orleans they call the rising sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, oh God, I’m one.

3 thoughts on “House of the Rising Sun”

  1. Avatar

    Steve,
    IMO the Texas Alexander version has nothing to do with the familiar version of “House of the Rising Sun”.
    Joop greets

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