I first heard House of the Rising Sun at my high school talent show. I think it was 1963. I didn’t know the teenage girl who sang that night, but I remember the purity of her voice. Such a sad and mournful lyric, coming from that young girl, it was electrifying. To this day I still think about that moment whenever I hear the song.
It’s strange how a moment like that can stay with you for decades. Memories are not locked in stone. Your subconscious makes decisions about what you remember and how you remember it. Contrary to what we would like to believe, a memory is not like a video recording, the physical fact of a moment that remains unchanged forever. I can’t even guess what made that particular girl, her voice, and that song, have such an effect. But it stuck with me and I still wonder what happened to her. Did she have a career in music?
I think she must have heard the Joan Baez recording from her debut, self titled album, released in 1960. The girl who sang at my high school show had a similar soprano style, I can’t say if she had the Joan Baez three octave range or not, but listening to her was mesmerizing.
The Animals’ version of House of the Rising Sun didn’t become a hit in the US, until September 1964. The song had been around for 30 years by then.
The earliest known recordings of House of the Rising Sun, also known as Rising Sun Blues, date back to the 1920s. In 1947 Josh White wrote the lyrics and music which have become the modern version. That 1940s recording, with vocals by Libby Holman, is hard core, soulful blues.
Since then, numerous artists have recorded various covers. Glenn Yarbourgh, Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, even Andy Griffith, and many others recorded it. Dave Van Ronk taught the song to both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, who also released covers.
While the Animals four minute track is the classic, but another favorite cover was the Frijid Pink version from late 1969. Along with the psychedelic influence, it was done in 4/4 time instead of 6/8 which was used by Van Ronk, The Animals, and most everybody else. The Frijid Pink version failed to chart higher than the Animals effort in the US, but had better success internationally.
There are a lot of theories about whether there was a real House of the Rising Sun, and if it did exist, was it a bordello, a prison or a hospital. While any of these theories are possible, there is no absolute proof to support any of them. That’s fine, pick the one that makes the most sense to you, and go with that. My personal favorite is the Madam LeSoleil Levant story.
Today, the three-story white building on St. Louis Street is owned by attorney Darlene Jacobs Levy and houses her Home Finders International real estate company. She inherited the building when her husband died in the late 1980s, and she began renovating the front apartment of the derelict building as a place for her father to live. Workmen at the site discovered risque postcards of half-dressed women from the 1800s behind a wall and uncovered fancy fluted columns and a ceiling mural of a golden rising sun surrounded by three cherubs. Levy says the house was a bordello operated by a succession of different madams for many years before her husband bought the building. Eric Burdon, the vocalist for The Animals, which scored a huge hit with “House of the Rising Sun” in 1964, wrote in his book Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood about meeting Levy and touring the St. Louis Street house. It was all I’d dreamt it would be,” Burdon wrote. “A palace in the New Orleans heat. It was a wondrous feeling, learning that the place I’d fantasized about for thirty years wasn’t some run-down shack, but was in fact a place of beauty.Rising Sun Bed & Breakfast
My earliest memory of House of the Rising Sun also has a certain fragile beauty. A moment of awakening. It must have had a similar impact on a few million other people. Guess that’s why it’s a classic.