What Is the House of the Rising Sun?: An Introduction to the Origins of the Classic Song

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.…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

B.B. King Explains in an Ani­mat­ed Video Whether You Need to Endure Hard­ship to Play the Blues

Stream 35 Hours of Clas­sic Blues, Folk, & Blue­grass Record­ings from Smith­son­ian Folk­ways: 837 Tracks Fea­tur­ing Lead Bel­ly, Woody Guthrie & More

Aretha Franklin’s Pitch-Per­fect Per­for­mance in The Blues Broth­ers, the Film That Rein­vig­o­rat­ed Her Career (1980)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.