"The House of the Rising Sun" is a traditional folk song from the United States. Also called "House of the Rising Sun" or occasionally "Rising Sun Blues", it tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans. The most successful commercial version was recorded by the English rock group The Animals in 1964, which was a number one hit in the United Kingdom, United States, Sweden, Finland and Canada. The song is in chromatic-minor.
Like many classic folk ballads, the authorship of "The House of the Rising Sun" is uncertain. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads such as the Unfortunate Rake of the 18th century and that English emigrants took the song to America where it was adapted to its later New Orleans setting. Alan Price of The Animals has even claimed that the song was originally a sixteenth-century English folk song about a Soho brothel.
The oldest known existing recording is by Appalachian artists Clarence "Tom" Ashley (with Gwen Foster) who recorded it for Vocalion Records in 1934. Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley.
The song was among those collected by folklorist Alan Lomax, who, along with his father, was a curator of the Archive of American Folk Song for the Library of Congress. On an expedition with his wife to eastern Kentucky, Lomax set up his recording equipment in Middlesborough, Kentucky in the house of a singer and activist called Tilman Cadle In 1937 he recorded a performance by Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter of a local miner. He called it "The Rising Sun Blues." Lomax later recorded a different version sung by Bert Martin and a third sung by Daw Henson, both eastern Kentucky singers. In his 1941 songbook Our Singing Country, Lomax credits the lyrics to Turner, with reference to Martin's version. According to his later writing, the melody bears similarities to the traditional English ballad "Matty Groves."
Roy Acuff, an "early-day friend and apprentice" of Ashley, learned it from him and later recorded it as "Rising Sun." In 1941, Woody Guthrie recorded a version. A recording made in 1947 by Josh White, who is also credited with having written new words and music that have subsequently been popularized in the versions made by many other later artists, was released by Mercury Records in 1950. Lead Belly recorded two versions of the song in February 1944 and in October 1948 called "In New Orleans" and "The House of the Rising Sun" respectively, and the latter was recorded in the sessions that later became the album Lead Belly's Last Sessions (1994, Smithsonian Folkways).
In 1957 Glenn Yarbrough recorded the song for Elektra Records. The song is also credited to Ronnie Gilbert on one of The Weavers albums released in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Pete Seeger released a version on Folkways Records in 1958, which was re-released by Smithsonian Folkways in 2009. Frankie Laine recorded the song then titled "New Orleans" on his 1959 album Balladeer. Joan Baez recorded it in 1960 on her eponymous debut album; she frequently performed the song in concert throughout her career. In 1960 Miriam Makeba recorded the song on her eponymous RCA album.
In late 1961, Bob Dylan recorded the song for his eponymous debut album, released in March 1962. That release had no songwriting credit, but the liner notes indicate that Dylan learned this version of the song from Dave Van Ronk. In an interview on the documentary No Direction Home, Van Ronk said that he was intending to record the song, and that Dylan copied his version. He recorded it soon thereafter on Just Dave Van Ronk.
I had learned it sometime in the 1950s, from a recording by Hally Wood, the Texas singer and collector, who had got it from an Alan Lomax field recording by a Kentucky woman named Georgia Turner. I put a different spin on it by altering the chords and using a bass line that descended in half steps—a common enough progression in jazz, but unusual among folksingers. By the early 1960s, the song had become one of my signature pieces, and I could hardly get off the stage without doing it.
—Dave Van Ronk
Nina Simone recorded her first version on Nina at the Village Gate in 1962. Later versions include the 1965 recording in Colombia by Los Speakers in Spanish called "La casa del sol naciente", which was also the title of their second album. They earned a silver record (for sales of over 15,000 copies). The Chambers Brothers recorded a version on "Feelin' The Blues", released on Vault records.