Everyone knows the song, a warning from a man or woman returning to the place that will destroy them. Yet they cannot turn back. The tragedy of “House of the Rising Sun” lies in its inevitability. “The narrator seems to have lost his free will,” writes Jim Beviglia, caught, perhaps, in the grip of an unbeatable addiction. As soon as we hear those first few notes, we know the story will end in ruin. But what kind of ruin takes place there? Is the House of the Rising Sun a brothel or a gambling den, or both? Was it a real place in New Orleans? Maybe a pub in England? Or a place in the anonymous songwriter’s imagination?
Eric Burdon and the Animals, who popularized the song worldwide when they recorded and released it in 1964, didn’t know. Even Alan Lomax couldn’t suss out the song’s origin, though he tried, and suspected it may have originated with an English farm worker named Harry Cox who sang a song called “She Was a Rum One” with a similar opening line.
Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan played “House of the Rising Sun” in coffeehouses. Burdon himself picked the song up from the English folk scene, and the Animals first covered the slow, sinister tune when they opened for Chuck Berry because they knew they “couldn’t outrock” the guitar great.
“House of the Rising Sun” has been recorded by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton, and virtually every other artist concerned with American roots music. “It’s so deep in the heart of this culture,” says New Orleans guitarist Reid Netterville, who finds that people from all over the world know the lyrics when he plays the song on street corners. Since the Animals’ recording, it has become “one of the single most performed songs in music history,” notes Polyphonic in the video at the top, “with renditions in every genre you can think of, from metal to reggae to disco.”
Maybe audiences around the world connect with this tale of ruin and despair because its setting is so mysterious and yet so perfectly placed. Burdon himself, who visits New Orleans often, gets invited to all sorts of strange places in the city, he says, purporting to be the titular “House”: “I’d go to women’s prisons, coke dealers’ houses, insane asylums, mens’ prisons, private parties. They just wanted to get me there.” The ambiguity between the real and the symbolic makes the song adaptable to any number of different kinds of voices. “It’s been described as an abstract metaphor but also a reference to real historical places,” notes Polyphonic, and it’s gone from the lament of a “ruined” female narrator to a dissolute male voice with only a change in pronouns.
While there may be a handful of spurious claimants to the title of real House of the Rising Sun, the origin of the song remains unknown. But its allure is not a mystery. The house is “a place of vice, a place of darkness and foreboding” — a place that we both can’t seem to resist and that we’d do best to stay clear of. We’ll always have curiosity about the dark corners of the world; the warning of “House of the Rising Sun” will always be pertinent, and mothers, often tragically to no avail, will always tell their children about it, wherever and whatever that den of sin may be….