There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
It's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God, I know I'm one
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New Orleans, French Quarter 2010
(thanks, Naomi Wahler)
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. Steady boys, steady.
Canal Street, New Orleans, c. 1910
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 1937There 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.
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