Mon. May 27th, 2024

A Familiar Chord Pattern and Popular Hit

Considering that The House of the Rising Sun is reminiscent of the popular hit by The Animals in 1964, we recognize the song immediately through its circular chord pattern in the key of A minor. However, the song has a rich and extensive history, encompassing various folk traditions throughout the United States. Furthermore, the true origins of The House of the Rising Sun have been lost to time, and people have lost their meaning.

Like many folk songs, we can trace the song’s record back to Alan Lomax. Lomax recorded a young girl named Georgia Turner singing the song without accompaniment in the rural Kentucky Appalachian Mountains. The Library of Congress featured these recordings on the critically acclaimed album Our Singing Country in 1941. In 1933, Clarence Ashley, a well-liked folk singer, made the initial recording of The House of the Rising Sun. His interpretation showcased a definitive bluegrass style. Ashley learned the song from his grandfather, suggesting we could trace the origins to a period before 1933.

Interestingly, it is noted that Ashley and Turner came from the Appalachian region, despite being over 100 miles apart—a significant distance in the 1930s. Nevertheless, they both performed a similar version of the song. It raises questions about how music like The House of the Rising Sun spread among people at a time when few could afford record players or radios.

Ted Anthony’s Quest for the Origins

Ted Anthony thoroughly explores the song, searching for its origins. Anthony traveled across twelve states, even crossing the Atlantic Ocean in his quest. He presents various ways in which songs tend to transcend the confines of small towns. Folk singers, whether recorded or not, lived and eventually passed away. Anthony implies that Ashley did travel across the Appalachian region in the 1920s as part of a drug show—a popular show in the early to mid-20th century that involved a music band and a traveling salesman. In each new city they visited, musicians would entertain the crowd with songs while the salesmen took advantage of the opportunity to sell “medicine” in bottles. Many folk songs found their way into the world through early touring shows. Along with other unfamiliar individuals, Ashley may have performed The House of the Rising Sun in many cities in Appalachia. Some residents would remember and continue singing the song, improvising if they forgot a particular phrase or word.

During the era of the railroad system, early folk songs like The House of the Rising Sun also existed. Traveling by train was the primary practical means of covering long distances at the time, especially for journeys of 100 miles or less. As railroads were laid in various cities, many workers would sing along. Recordings by Lomax and his father, John, provide evidence of this phenomenon. Anthony recounts an incident where he found a version of The House of the Rising Sun in Oklahoma, although the place mentioned in the song was not Rising Sun, another famous local place. The lyrics had changed slightly. However, we cannot deny the original influence. Anthony surmises that the railroad might have allowed an anonymous person to carry the song from the eastern mountains to the plains of the Midwest. As the song’s popularity grew, so did the availability of recordings. Rather than relying on chance and transmission by a few troubadour singers, the song became widely accessible. From the 1940s onwards, various artists recorded different song versions, sometimes using alternative titles. However, they generally retained the same chord progressions and lyrics. Lead Belly released several versions in the 1940s, while Pete Seeger recorded a banjo version from a female perspective in 1958. Musicians like Bob Dylan also recorded their interpretations, with Dylan’s version gaining popularity until The Animals’ rendition a few years later.

The Animals’ Instant Hit: Recording the Song in One Take

During the recording sessions in May 1964, The Animals recorded their version of the song in one take. Quickly, it became a major hit, topping the charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom that year. Hailed for its timeless appeal, The House of the Rising Sun remains The Animals’ most popular single. The song gained traction on the folk music scene before The Animals brought it up. Eric Burdon, the lead vocalist of The Animals, first heard the song from a local folk singer named Johnny Handel. When Burdon joined the band in 1962, they were already familiar with the song’s various versions. In the springtime, they performed as the opening act for Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. The audience’s reaction to their interpretation was very positive. Initially, the song faced challenges in gaining significant radio airplay due to its long duration and content. However, The Animals got a boost when they appeared on a British television show. Eventually, the song topped the Billboard charts. Although unusual for a pop song, its powerful resonance with the listener is undeniable. Burdon’s delivery of The House of the Rising Sun creates an absorbing contrast when a group of British youths in similar uniforms sings the melancholic tale with effortless intensity.

Unfortunately, the band’s togetherness did not last long. The decision to credit only Alan Price as the arranger on the record created tension among the band members, as it meant that only one person would receive the royalty. Although Price did make a significant contribution to the song’s arrangement, logistical constraints led to the singular recognition. Additionally, they should have considered the simple solution of crediting The Animals as a unit. In 1965, Price decided to depart from the band, explaining that his fear of flying and wish to avoid touring were the factors behind his departure. However, other band members suggested that the recognition issues surrounding The House of the Rising Sun also influenced his departure.

Tracing Similar Songs and Deep Roots

Although The Animals brought the song to the mainstream and ensured lasting recognition, The House of the Rising Sun has continued to transform. It is highly improbable that the actual whereabouts of The House of the Rising Sun will ever be known. Despite various leads and conflicting information, a 2007 article reported that the most probable location was 535-537 Conti St. in the famous French Quarter. There, evidence of a Rising Sun hotel was found, including an unusual number of cosmetic containers and liquor bottles. A newspaper advertisement indicating that the hotel catered to “smart men” suggests possible involvement in prostitution. There is also a story about a women’s penitentiary outside New Orleans with a sunrise stone carving over its gate, but no images exist. The theory gains some plausibility as most early song versions featured a female narrator. Another house on Esplanade Ave, near the French Quarter, was once associated with being the Rising Sun, but the term is often used as a catchphrase and continues to be so. Different versions of the song from around the country often replace New Orleans with another city, describing places like prisons, bars, gambling establishments, or brothels. Many early singers likely have yet to visit New Orleans, including 16-year-old Turner. The House of the Rising Sun may be an alliteration representing a generic place associated with crime. The truth may never be known for sure.

Evidence suggests that songs similar to The House of the Rising Sun, although generally traced back to the early 1900s in the Appalachian region, have deeper roots reaching tens or even hundreds of years in England. As people migrate, settle, and influence each other’s cultures over the years, it becomes nearly.

It is impossible to pinpoint the origins of the song’s various elements. Like many other folk songs, the true origins of The House of the Rising Sun are lost to history. The early singers and the exact location of the famous house where many say people lived lives of sin and suffering remain shrouded in mystery. The obscurity, along with its anonymous lyrics and haunting minor chords, is likely part of what continues to captivate the imagination of many. The House of the Rising Sun is an enduring hit many artists cover. In the future, people will likely reinterpret it. Although the historical context and origins of the song are still uncertain, it has left a grand impact on mainstream American culture. The haunting narrative and the song’s gripping elements have contributed to its status as a timeless classic.


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