The House of the Rising Sun: A Legend in Folklore

There is a House in New Orleans….

Go ahead, sing it – the first lyric is practically begging for you to. I’ve even played the song on repeat while writing this. The House of the Rising Sun, by The Animals, is without a doubt one of the best renditions in the history of music. Most people probably know by now that the song doesn’t belong to The Animals, though. No, the song was written a long, long time ago…

The Animals / Eric Burdon / The House of the Rising Sun / Bob Dylan.

Source: Getty Images

The most alluring part of it all isn’t even the song itself; it’s the mystery behind it. Is there an actual House of the Rising Sun? And if so, where is it? Many say that this mystical home wasn’t even in New Orleans.

The Mystery of the House of the Rising Sun

It’s easy to believe that The House of the Rising Sun belongs to The Animals (it was their 1964 smash hit), but a song like this deserves to have its entire history told. The truth is, like so many other folk songs, the origins of the song have gone through a sort of broken telephone over the past century.

The Animals are performing on stage.

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After all, a story that (most likely) originated in the 1800s is going to be turned and twisted along the way. Now, let me just say that there is no definitive answer to the House of the Rising Sun mystery. There are only tales, rumors, and legends. But who said folklore isn’t fun?

Old Songs That Men Have Sung

House of the Rising Sun is said to have been sung by American miners back in 1905. Adventure Magazine published a column entitled “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” in 1925 by Robert Winslow Gordon, which was the oldest published version of the lyrics…

A picture of miners going into a coal mine.

Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

“There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many poor girl
Great God, and I, for one.”

As for the song’s recording, it’s needless to say that it’s a debated subject, but most historians point to two origins.

Alan Lomax & Georgia Turner: The Rising Sun Blues

The song’s birth can be traced to Alan Lomax in the Appalachian hills of rural Kentucky. As the story goes, Lomax was on an expedition with his wife. Once in Kentucky, he set up his recording equipment in the house of the singer and activist Tillman Cadle.

A photo of Alan Lomax with his wife.

Source: Pinterest

He then recorded a teenaged girl named Georgia Turner, the daughter of a coal miner, who sang the song a cappella. Georgia was only 16 when she recorded the song, which Lomax titled “The Rising Sun Blues.” Lomax included this early version of the song in the popular Library of Congress album Our Singing Country in 1941.

Clarence Ashley: Rising Sun

Then there are those who attribute the origins to folk singer Clarence Ashley who made an early recording of “Rising Sun” in 1933, in bluegrass style. Clarence said he learned the song from his grandfather, which takes the song’s origins to the 19th century.

Clarence’s song was written from the perspective of a male character, with the lyrics:

Clarence performs live.

Photo by John Byrne Cooke Estate/Getty Images

“There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
Where many poor boys to destruction have gone
And me, oh God, are one.”

The Same Song, 100 Miles Apart

Both Clarence and Georgia come from the Appalachian region, Clarence from Tennessee, and Georgia from Kentucky. They were over 100 miles apart – a long way away from one another back in the 1930s – yet they both sang eerily similar versions of the same song.

A photo of The Animals’ music video of The House of the Rising Sun.

Source: YouTube

Remember, this was an era when few people could afford record players or even radios. So, how was it that so many people knew the same songs, like this one? How were such “traveling songs” able to make their way across the country?

Chasing the Rising Sun

Ted Anthony wrote a book called Chasing the Rising Sun, detailing his journey searching for the song’s origins. His journey took him into dozens of states and across the Atlantic Ocean. Anthony claims that Clarence Ashley traveled the Appalachian region in the 1920s with medicine shows.

A photo of the book’s first page.

Source: Pinterest

What are medicine shows? Well, they were traveling bands of musicians and salesmen that were quite popular in the early-to-mid 1900s. It was a win-win-win for the musicians, the salesmen, and the audience. The musicians would sing their songs to draw in and entertain people, while the salesmen would take advantage of the crowds to sell bottled “medicine.”

Spreading the Songs Through “Medicine” Shows

And let’s face it, we all know the “medicine” was really just flavored alcohol. These early traveling shows were actually what helped folk songs spread. It’s very possible that Clarence, and other unknown folk singers, sang the House of the Rising Sun in several towns in Appalachia.

A photo of Clarence Ashley performing.

Photo by George Pickow/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image

And just like a game of broken telephone, these townsfolk would remember, re-sing, and improvise the song they heard from “that medicine show.” Railroads also helped spread early folk songs. In those days, the only practical means of traveling long distances was by train.

And on the Railroad

It was also a time when train tracks were still built by workers (sometimes slaves) who would sing in unison. Alan Lomax – the guy who recorded the girl singing a cappella – had numerous folk recordings where people can be heard singing in unison to the tune of their hammers hitting the railroad spikes.

A portrait of Alan Lomax.

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Back to Ted Anthony’s “chase.” He found a version of The House of the Rising Sun in Oklahoma. The “house” wasn’t yet called the Rising Sun, though. Instead, it was a more local establishment, and the lyrics were slightly different.

Then Records Were Introduced

Still, according to Anthony, the song belonged to “one of the originals.” His theory is that the railroads enabled anonymous people to carry the song from the mountains in the east to the plains in the mid-west. Once records grew in popularity, so did recordings of the House of the Rising Sun.

A photo of gramophone records and players on display.

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Songs were no longer passed down from mouth to ear; there were now records for people to put their hands on. From the 1940s on, it was common for artists to record different versions of the same song, under altered titles, but with the same lyrics and chord progressions.

Bob Dylan’s Version Was the Most Famous… Until The Animals Came Along

In 1958, Pete Seeger recorded a version of Rising Sun on the banjo, which was a signature instrument in the song’s early versions. Seeger also sang it from the perspective of a woman. Lead Belly recorded two versions in 1944 (“In New Orleans”) and 1948 (“The House of the Rising Sun”).

Bob Dylan plays harmonica into a microphone.

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Then there was Woodie Guthrie’s rendition and Joan Baez’s and Nina Simone’s, who recorded her first version in 1962. Bob Dylan’s cover was arguably the most famous version until the Animals’ cover was released several years later.

The Animals Recorded It in One Take

The Animals (an English group) recorded the song in just one take during a recording session on May 18, 1964. The track was an immediate hit. It was as if the song was simply waiting for The Animals to grab the song and make it their own.

A band portrait of The Animal in the recording studio.

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Eric Burdon, the band’s vocalist, said he first heard the song in a club in Newcastle, England, where Johnny Handle sang it. The Animals, on tour with Chuck Berry at the time, chose to cover the song because they wanted something distinctive to sing.

Eric Burdon Was “Fated to It”

The Animals started their arrangement of Rising Sun during a concert with Berry, using it as their closing number (they wanted to differentiate themselves from other acts). The audience went wild, convincing the initially reluctant producer Mickie Most that their cover had hit potential.

A photo of Eric Burdon performing on stage.

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An interview with Eric Burdon (via Songafacts) revealed that Burdon felt as he was “just fated to” sing the House of the Rising Sun. “It was made for me, and I was made for it.” He explained that the song was perfect for the Chuck Berry tour as it was a way to reach the audience “without copying Berry.”

The Best Part About It

“It was a great trick, and it worked,” Burdon shared. The group hit a small recording studio on Kingsway in London between tour stops and essentially made history. He also shared that the best part of it all – as he had been told – was that Bob Dylan was angry at first but then “turned into a rocker.”

A backstage picture of Eric Burdon.

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We can see how there’s a real Bob Dylan connection to the song we all know and love. Drummer John Steel revealed that Dylan told him how he felt when he first heard The Animals’ version on his car radio.

Connecting an Ancient Tune to a Live Wire

He said he stopped to listen, then “jumped out of his car” and “banged on the bonnet” (British lingo for the hood of the car). According to Steel, it was what inspired Dylan to go electric. Dave Marsh described The Animals’ Rising Sun as “the first folk-rock hit,” making it sound like they “connected the ancient tune to a live wire.”

The Animals pose for a band portrait.

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Speaking of electric: that famous electric guitar opener? Hilton Valentine performed it. And according to Valentine, he merely took Dylan’s chord sequence and played it as an A minor chord arpeggio.

Eric Burdon’s Howling, Soulful Voice

Valentine’s electric guitar is just the beginning… literally. The entire song is a shining example of teamwork coming together to make a masterpiece. The song then takes off with Burdon’s “howling” and “soulful” voice, which some have said is as “deep and gravelly” as the coal town of Newcastle that he grew up in.

A photo of The Animals performing on stage.

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And then Alan Price’s lively organ (played on a Vox Continental) completes the sound. There was also Chas Chandler on bass guitar and John Steel on the drums. In the end, the 4.5-minute song was considered too long for a pop single. But they released it anyway.

The Credit Went to Only One of Them

Although it took a team effort, arranging credit went to Alan Price alone. Burdon explained that this was simply because there wasn’t enough room to name all five band members on the label. Price’s first name was, after all, the first alphabetically.

A photo of Alan Price performing on the piano.

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However, the problem, which they must not have entirely thought through, was that this really meant future royalties. Only Price received songwriter’s royalties for the hit, which has caused bitterness among the other members ever since. Valentine, for instance, may be an influence for young guitarists to this day, but he never made a penny from the song.

There Is a House… Or Is There?

“There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And, God, I know I’m one.”

An image of a house in New Orleans.

Source: Flickr

This may come as a real bummer to some fans of the tune, but it’s unclear whether the House of the Rising Sun even existed. 19th-century records show several establishments in New Orleans that were referred to as “The House of the Rising Sun,” but almost all of them burned down or were demolished.

The Brothel Theory

Whenever there is uncertainty about something, theories abound. Many say that the “House” was really a brothel. But there’s no actual evidence to support this, and when you think about it, there isn’t even one reference to sex in the song’s lyrics.

A picture of a brothel in New Orleans.

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There is, however, one possible location that shares a connection to prostitution: a hotel on Conti Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter called Rising Sun. It was one of the establishments that has since burned down. This hotel went ablaze in 1822.

Open to “Discerning Gentlemen”

Excavators of the Conti Street home discovered ample amounts of makeup containers and liquor bottles, and even a newspaper advertisement stating that the hotel (aka brothel) was open to “discerning gentlemen,” which pretty much alludes to those seeking prostitutes.

A photo of New Orleans’ streets.

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Rising Sun is believed to have operated between 1808 and 1822 when it burned down. According to archaeologist Shannon Dawdy, who uncovered most of the hotel’s artifacts, it could easily just have been a hotel for men. Apparently, it was common for men of that era to apply makeup to themselves. The site now serves as a gallery for the Historic New Orleans Collection Museum.

“The House Was Talking to Me”

If there’s one place that reaches the top of the list of possible Houses of the Rising Sun, it’s a house that sits at 826-830 St. Louis St. Built somewhere between 1862 and 1874, and it was supposedly named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose name translates to “The Rising Sun.”

A portrait of Eric Burdon during an interview.

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Eric Burdon actually visited this building and said, in his own words, that “The house was talking to me.” The house, by the way, still stands and can serve as a perfect stop on your next road trip.

Let’s continue to look at the lyrics…

His Mother Was a Tailor

“My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans.”

Since blue jeans are the American symbol of the working class, some say that the character’s mother wanted him to live a simple, honest life.

A photo of workers carrying baskets dressed in blue jeans.

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Woody Guthrie’s version of the song has the lyric, “My mother she’s a tailor/ Sews those new blue jeans.” In Guthrie’s rendition, which was closer to the original folk song, the character was a woman said to have been led astray by a drunk gambler despite her mother’s honest example of a life.

His Father Was a Gamblin’ Man

“My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans”

The contrast between the mother and father are pretty obvious. One theory of the song’s history is that it was about a woman who killed her alcoholic gambler of father, who had beaten his wife – her mother.

Woody Guthrie poses for a portrait with his guitar.

Photo by Library of Congress/Getty Images

“Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time a fool like him is satisfied
Is when he’s all stone-cold drunk.”

If the theory mentioned above is true, then the House of the Rising Sun could be referring to a jailhouse or prison and not a brothel.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

“Oh, mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun”

A picture of Woody Guthrie.

Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

It’s clear at this point that the narrator is pleading with mothers to keep their kids from going down the same path as he did, with all the drinking, gambling, and “sin and misery.” In those days, the women raised their children, so it only makes sense that mothers are addressed here.

That Ball and Chain

“Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain.”

A still from The Animals’ music video.

Source: YouTube

One interpretation is that the narrator is running from his gambling debts and being taken back to prison. The “ball and chain” lyric is pretty obvious if we’re sticking with the jailhouse theory. But then, of course, we all know of the “ol’ ball and chain” as being a metaphor for wife – a less than a flattering metaphor, no less.

Your Next Stop in New Orleans?

There is an actual place in New Orleans called The Rising Sun. It’s not a brothel, though. Rather, it’s a bed-and-breakfast run by a couple, Kevin (a Brit) and Wendy Herridge (a Louisianian), who love the legend. Over the years, they have collected more than 40 versions of the song.

An exterior shot of the bed-and-breakfast.

Source: TripAdvisor

Their B&B features tons of brothel memorabilia, too. “Street girls bringing in sailors must pay for a room in advance,” one old sign reads. Another one reads: “Ladies–kindly do your soliciting discreetly.” There’s even one bedroom that was made to look like it belongs to an Asian prostitute.

“I’ve Heard That One Before”

Burdon has been to New Orleans many times, and he finds it amusing that his song has such a connection to the place. “They’re trying to build up tourism, and here’s this Brit singing about a whorehouse,” he said laughing.

Eric Burdon attends an event.

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He said that whenever he would visit, everyone had a story – an idea – about where the “real” house is (or was). People would come up to him and say, “You want to know where the real House of the Rising Sun is?” He would tell them, “I’ve heard that one before.”

Once You Get Past That First Verse

Burdon said that he would go to prisons, drug dealers’ houses, insane asylums, and private parties – all personal invitations for The Animals frontman. “They just wanted to get me there,” he explained. The building owner on St. Louis Street – the house that “talked to him” –personally invited him.

A dated photo of Eric Burdon performing on stage.

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She made him sing House of the Rising Sun, a cappella, for what felt to him like 40 minutes. Burdon has admitted that he’s complained about singing the song, “but once you get past that first verse, it’s like you’re lost in this dreamscape of what happened sometime in 1914 or something like that, you know?”

The Most Evocative Voice of the British Invasion

The Animals’ cover of Rising Sun is obviously their most famous, but the band went on to have several hits, including Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and We Gotta Get Out of This Place. The group didn’t last too long, though, as they were overworked and badly managed.

The Animals perform on an NBC TV music show.

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The Animals went their separate ways by 1966 (after which there were several changing lineups). Now 80 years old, Burdon thinks he has the most evocative voice to come out of the British Invasion, a term he said he always hated. Many have said that Burdon’s voice was older and “blacker” than any of his contemporaries.

Valentine Left in ’66

If you’ve seen the music video for The Animals’ Rising Sun, you’ve probably noticed the guitarist with the huge grin. That was the young, 20-something Hilton Valentine, and he left the group in 1966 to pursue a solo career.

Hilton Valentine poses before a street poster of The Animals.

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But before he parted, he contributed to the hits We Gotta Get Out of This Place, It’s My Life, and Don’t Bring Me Down. Valentine recalled coming up with the iconic guitar intro. Valentine was asked, in an interview, if it was true that keyboardist Alan Price said it wasn’t provocative enough…

Price Thought His Intro Was Corny

Valentine responded by first acknowledging that he basically copied Bob Dylan’s chord sequence, and when he played it back for the band, Price spoke up: “That’s so corny. Can you not play something different?”

A picture of Valentine.

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Valentine told Price to stick to his keyboard, and he’ll stick to his guitar. “If he didn’t like it, he could f*#k off.” As soon as they recorded the song, Valentine knew it was going to be a number-one hit. He could tell from the reaction it was getting on tour.

When Valentine and Burdon Met

Bassist Chas Chandler attended a Wildcats gig – Valentine’s band at the time. Chandler introduced himself and asked Valentine if he would want to go to London to play with his band – The Alan Price Rhythm & Blues Combo. They were looking for a guitar player.

The band poses for a studio portrait.

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That’s when he met Burdon and Price (drummer John Steel wasn’t in the band yet). Valentine had actually seen Burdon before as both of their bands were in a talent show run by The Carroll Levis Discovery Show. He remembers meeting Burdon very well…

From Roomies to Bandmates to Old Pals

And it’s because the future Animals’ frontman was wearing a red-and-black tartan jacket “like Bo Diddley,” so it stood out to him. After all these years, the two still keep in touch. Of all the guys in the band, these two got along the best.

A photo of Burdon and Valentine performing together on stage.

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They were roommates back in London when they first started out. They also lived together in California in the late ‘60s. Valentine was the road manager for Burdon’s band War at one point. The Animals ended up having three reunions.

Arguments, Dope, and Frustration

According to Valentine, The Animals broke up in 1966 because of the arguments. “We couldn’t get on with each other.” He explained how they were working too much, always on the road and thinking about how much the other was making.

A picture of The Animals performing on stage.

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And they weren’t seeing any money, either. Valentine confessed that he and Burdon were “smoking dope and taking LSD, and the rest were getting drunk.” Apparently, the other members thought drinking was okay, while what they were doing was “horrible.”

0.3 Cents Divided by 5

Valentine missed the band as soon as he left it. “I felt lost. I had no idea what I was going to do.” Strangely, he left the band at the height of their success, especially considering it was all the young Valentine ever wanted since he was 13. He was only 23 at the time.

An outdoors portrait of the band.

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Valentine said the royalties from Rising Sun are pretty abysmal. Since music is all streaming these days, they get $0.003 per stream, which then has to be divided among five people.

One Time, On the Road…

Valentine recalled a funny road trip story, which took place as they were coming back from Manchester at about three in the morning. They were driving through dense fog in Chandler’s dad’s ex-army truck, and the guys were sitting on beer crates filled with empty bottles they drank through along the way.

A portrait of the band at the side of the road.

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They were pretty drunk. Valentine can’t recall who was driving, but they went around the roundabout at least four times, missing the turnoff over and over again. When they finally exited, a police cruiser pulled up behind them.

A Group of Wild, Drunk Musicians

The cop came up to the truck, so they rolled down their windows. The cop told them, “I just followed you around that roundabout three times.” That’s when their roadie, named Tappy, yelled out, “Why, are you lost, as well?”

An outdoors portrait of the band.

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Valentine said they all fell off their crates, laughing hysterically. It must have been funny enough for the cop since he let the wild group of intoxicated musicians go. I feel the need at this point to say don’t drink and drive folks!

Valentine recently died in January of 2021.

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Another song that The Animals covered and basically made it their own was Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which was written for Nina Simone. The Animals recorded their version in 1965 and took it to international fame.

A portrait of the band on a tv set.

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Burdon later said of the song: “It was never considered pop material, but it somehow got passed on to us, and we fell in love with it immediately.” Rolling Stone ranked it at No. 322 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Fun fact: In 2012, Bruce Springsteen credited the song as inspiring the riff for his song Badlands.

Did You Know Eric Burdon Also Acted?

Burdon reportedly wanted a role in the film Blowup (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni, who wanted to use him as a musician in a club scene. Burdon turned it down because he had already acted in films where he just sang songs.

A portrait of Eric Burdon.

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After The Animals disbanded, he headed to California, where he met Jim Morrison and decided he wanted to get into acting. But, in 1970, he turned down even more roles, including Zabriskie Point and Performance. In ’73, he formed the Eric Burdon Band and recorded the soundtrack for a film project of his, called Mirage.

His First Wife Left Him for Jimi Hendrix

The film and soundtrack were meant to be released in July 1974, but they didn’t see the light of day until the soundtrack was finally released in 2008. In 1979, Burdon got a role in the German TV movie, The 11th Victim. In 1991, he made a cameo appearance in the film The Doors.

Jimi Hendrix performs on stage.

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Not too long ago, Burdon played the 50th-anniversary version of the Monterey Festival and was “overwhelmed.” He realized that he was “one of the few acts still standing” as all his friends from that time are gone.

His First Wife Was Murdered

As for his personal life, he was first married to Angela “Angie” King in 1967 (he married twice more later on). Angie was a hippie and model connected to the music scene. She left Burdon a year into their marriage for the one and only Jimi Hendrix. It’s funny because Burdon first “stole” her from Andy Summers, one of The Animals’ guitar players.

A wedding picture of Eric Burdon and Angie King.

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Strangely enough, his first wife Angie was murdered in 1992 by an estranged boyfriend. Speaking of Hendrix, The Animals’ Chas Chandler essentially molded the careers of Jimi Hendrix (as well as many others) as a manager.