The oldest known recording was made in 1933 by Appalachian artists, Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster. Ashley claimed he'd learned the song from his grandfather.

It was then recorded on September 15, 1937 by Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter on a Kentucky miner. Then it was recorded by Bert Martin, and another time by Daw Henson.

On November 3, 1938, the song was recorded by Roy Acuff. And in 1941 by Woody Guthrie.

A recording made in 1947 by Josh White, was released by Mercury Records in 1950.

Lead Belly recorded the song twice, once in 1944 and once in 1948. In 1957, Glen Yarbrough released a version.

Ronnie Gilbert sang the song on one of The Weavers albums. Frankie Laine recorded the song in 1959. Joan Baez did so in 1960, followed the same year by Miriam Mabeka.

Bob Dylan recorded it for his debut album. And Dave Van Ronk recorded it shortly after. Nina Simone recorded the song in 1962. It was record in Spanish by Los Speakers.

The Chambers Brothers released a version. And much later, the band Muse made a recording for The War Child Charity.

Frijid Pink had a top ten hit with the song in 1970. And Dolly Parton had a top 100 hit in 1981.

The most famous version of the song however was recorded by the British band The Animals in 1964.

Counting all these up, you get 22 artists/bands, however I'm sure there are many more versions out there.

Most songs we can trace to the songwriter even though he or she may no longer be with us. Sometimes the song gives the creator as "Anonymous," or its cousin, "Traditional." "The House of the Rising Sun" comes into the "unknown author" category. It probably was first sung hundreds of years ago with word changes down the centuries.

We should say thanks to folklorists here, the people who travel the land recording tales and songs from people who usually have no fame to speak of. But by capturing scraps of information, melodies, and stories, the oral tradition is preserved and we have many songs today.

"The Rising Sun Blues" was the name of a song recorded by folklorists in the 1930s and it became known as "The House of the Rising Sun" that we know today. Recordings were made over the years and country singer Roy Acuff followed suit in 1938. Bob Dylan gave us his version in 1961, and Nina Simone her version in 1962. But it was in 1964, when the British group The Animals recorded the song, that great fame came its way. Their recording did extremely well in the UK, USA, and elsewhere.

Even though Dylan recorded the song before The Animals did, some folks falsely accused the American of doing a cover version. Young Bob didn't take kindly to this incorrect statement and stopped playing the song at his concerts to prevent the attacks continuing. People can be so cruel – and dumb. Last time we looked, 1961 occurred before 1964.

But The Animals didn't get it all their own way. Their version, which they recorded in London in one take, came out with only one band member listed as the arranger. It was never on an album, but released twice as a single. There's not much space on those small records, so alphabetically speaking, Alan Price was the only name featured. He got the songwriter royalties, even though it is a traditional tune, and that got right up the noses of the other musicians who had a hand in the arrangement.

So where is this "house," the one named in the song? Good question. There are several schools of thought here, the two most popular holding that it was either a brothel or a prison in New Orleans. No solid evidence exists to support either claim, so based on the following, we'll let you make the call.

In 1862, during the Union occupation of New Orleans, a brothel at 826-830 St. Louis Street opened its doors for business. Its owner, Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant, kept the men of the town busy while providing a livelihood for her "girls" until 1874, when she was forced to close down because the neighbours were complaining. This story ties into the song due to Ms. LeSoleil Levant, whose name, when translated into English, means "the rising sun."

The other story holds that the narrator/singer spent time as a prisoner at the Orleans Parish women's prison. Its entrance gate artwork depicted the sun rising, and a prison would explain (literally) the "ball and chain" in the song.

When the song was recorded by 16-year-old Georgia Turner in 1937, she kept the original lyric, singing in first person, and the character could have been either a prisoner or a prostitute (see lyrics below). The Animals changed a few things, going with a father who was a gambler and thereby skewing the song's original meaning.

So it's anyone's guess, really, where the "house" is or if it even ever existed. One historian of brothels in New Orleans reckons there is no evidence of any Rising Sun establishment. As someone once said, "Sometimes lyrics is just lyrics." ~ Cenarth Fox

"House of the Rising Sun" as sung by Georgia Turner in 1937

There is a house in New Orleans
they call The Rising Sun.
it's been the ruin of many a poor girl,
and me, oh God, am one.

if I had listened what Mamma had 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 sweet-heart, 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 hobblin' 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.

House of the Rising Sun is a song so steeped in American folklore and tradition that it’s almost impossible to put a date on its origins. It is possible however to trace back the exact moment when it stepped into 20th century popular culture, that date was September 15 1937 and it all happened in Middlesboro, not Middlesbrough in the north east of England, although the north east of England does play it’s part in the story some three decades later. No, it all began in Middlesboro, Kentucky when a music historian by the name of Alan Lomax arrived at the doorstep of a poor miner’s daughter by the name of Georgia Turner. Lomax was making recordings of popular folk songs sung by ordinary people in their natural environments for the Library of Congress and his travels brought him to little Georgia who was just 16, he hulked out his cumbersome presto reproducer recording machine and she sang her favourite sad song for him, an old bluesy folk tune about living a life of sin called Rising Son Blues. It had been about for years but never committed to tape before, indeed Lomax believed it dated back to 1600’s England while others dated it to the American Civil war, either way history had been made!

The song was recorded in 1937, from there the legendary Lomax put the song in a songbook and it spread like wildfire through the folk music scene on the east coast with versions springing up in the 1940’s from the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and bluesman Josh White. Not bad for a song warning about the perils of prostitution eh? The House of the Rising Sun was traditionally a euphemism for a bordello in English circles, and the song is really little more than a tale of woe concerning a woman’s decline into the oldest profession in the world. Amazing that no one really picked up on that and censored the whole thing from the start! With every passing year the songs fame grew until Bob Dylan covered it on his debut album (calling it House of the Rising Sun) and in 1964 a band of R&B reprobates from Newcastle in the north east of England called The Animals came to record it and the face of modern music was changed for ever.

Apparently Chas Chandler of the band heard the Josh White version, not the Bob Dylan version as is often thought. Eric Burdon has famously been quoted as saying the band’s famous producer Mickie Most did nothing but nod his head when the song was being recorded something that Most himself doesn’t really deny.

It was a revolutionary single, it was over four minutes for a start - a length unheard of in pop circles. But more than anything, it was the wonderful arrangement that really sold it as something different. The Animals electric version of Georgia Turner’s favourite tune swept across the world taking them to number one at home and also hitting the top spot Stateside on Sept 5th 1964, replacing the Supreme’s ‘Where did our Love Go’ at number one on the billboard charts. It was arguably the first folk rock tune, Bob Dylan loved it so much he decided to drop the acoustic sound he was famous for and took up the electric sound for his next album Bringing it All Back Home - pop music thus changed forever. The song has also got more than its fair share of celebrity fans, it’s Melvyn Bragg’s favourite tune ever.

In the years since, The Animals version has caused any amount of legal wrangling because Alan Price took the arrangers credit for the keyboard refrain he added to the song, arguably Hilton Valentine’s guitar work is just as influential (just ask anyone who’s ever learned guitar and they’ll tell you they learnt that famous riff!) but he never made a penny from it, the band still hold grudges about the credit to this day.

Ever since that break through hit in 1964, the song has been recorded in disco style, Cajun style, there are punk, jazz, even easy listening versions of it - even the hip hop world has embraced the tune with Wyclef Jean recently recording a version.

Needless to say every old building in New Orleans claims to be that fateful House of the Rising Sun, but in reality it’s impossible to judge if it’s all just to get publicity and encourage tourism.

As we remember the song with that immortal opening line “there is a house in New Orleans…” its worth remembering that the woman who sang that very first recorded version Georgia Turner died penniless of emphysema in 1969. She was just 48 years old, she made just 117.50 dollars from the song in royalties, a sobering thought when you think how famous the song is now. Written by Ralph McLean
House of the Rising Sun Music || Recordings || Rising Sun History

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