Legendary House – Some Notes on The House of the Rising Sun

This song’s archaic roots are traced back to England in the 1700’s; where its melody is associated with several British folk songs including, Lord Bernard and Little Musgrove. Two British folk songs name “Risin’ Sun” as houses of ill-repute. It is an old symbol in England for prostitution, carried over to America, and popularized as such in southern ballads.

Three houses in New Orleans, in particular, claim to be the “house”- the first, a hotel on Conti St. in the 1820’s. Evidence surfaced in 2005, from an excavation and research, that unearthed an ad for this house that alluded to prostitution.

A guidebook called Offbeat New Orleans places the second house at 826-830 Louis St. between the years of 1862-1864. According to the website Straight Dope, the building was supposedly named after its madam Marianne LeSolei Levant. Her surname translates to “The Rising Sun.”

The third, Rising Sun Hall along the riverfront in the uptown Carrollton neighborhood during the late 19th Century, where meetings of a Social Aid and Pleasure Club were held, as well as dances and functions. The Conti St. house and “Rising Sun Hall” are listed in old period directories.

Dave van Ronk wrote in his autobiography that he had seen photos of the old New Orleans Prison for Women, and over the entrance he saw a design of a Risin’ Sun. Thus, some believe that the ballad is about a young girl who goes to prison. Others think she ended up as a “lady of the night.”

Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster released a recording in 1934 that is considered the earliest existing record of the song. There is a dispute that says Texas Alexander’s was the first, but some scholars state it was a completely different song entitled “Risin’ Sun” recorded in 1928.

Roy Acuff recorded it in 1938, probably learning the song from other Smokey Mountain artists.

The traditional lyrics were written by Kentuckians Georgia Turner (a miner’s daughter) and Bert Martin. Folklorist Alan Lomax, in his 1941 germinal work Our Singing Country, reports writing the lyrics down as Georgia sang. He added them to his songbook. The older lyrics were written in a feminine viewpoint, warning about coupling your friendship with a drunk and or gambling man, thus ruining your life, though male artists recorded the song early on. A popular version from the 1930s was recorded by Leadbelly, who added ambiguity to the lyrics by changing the gender of the singer. (wikipedia)

But Eric Burton and The Animals shortened the lyrics and gave them a masculine perspective in 1964 that warned about drinking and gambling. They used the arrangement written by Dave van Ronk that Dylan used before them (this is according to Martin Scorsese, who did the bipic for the Dylan album No Direction Home). It is said that The Animals actually learned the song from Nina Simone. In 2006 Shawn Mullins released 9th Ward Pickin Parlor, performing a powerful rendition from the original female perspective of the lyrics.

The Charlie Daniels band makes a reference to “House of the Rising Sun” in their song the Devil Went Down to Georgia (“…the devil’s in the house of the rising sun…”). Also, there are French, Finnish, and Catalan versions. An alternate name for the song is “Rising Sun Blues.”

Some of the artist that covered the song includes:

  • The Adolescents
  • Bachman-Turner Overdrive
  • Gerry and the Pacemakers
  • Joan Baez
  • The Be Good Tanyas
  • Eric Bibb & Cyndee Peters
  • Blind Boys of Alabama (as ‘Amazing Grace’)
  • Bon Jovi
  • The Brothers Four
  • Cody C & J.R.
  • Johnny Cash
  • David Allen Coe
  • Bob Dylan (as part of his self-titled debut album)
  • The Eagles
  • Tommy Emmanuel
  • EverEve
  • Marianne Faithfull
  • Frijid Pink
  • Woody Guthrie
  • Wyclef Jean et Les Portes du Pen
  • Waylon Jennings
  • Brian Johnson
  • Sammy Kaye
  • B.B. King and Mary Travers
  • Mark Knopfler
  • Kult
  • La Renga
  • Leadbelly
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Courtney Love
  • Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power)
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • Roger McGuinn
  • Muse
  • Mark O’Conner
  • Sinéad O’Connor
  • Odetta
  • John Otway
  • Oysterhead
  • Dolly Parton
  • The Platters
  • Pink Floyd
  • Rockapella
  • The Rolling Stones
  • Dave van Ronk
  • Santa Esmeralda
  • Pete Seeger
  • Sentenced
  • Nina Simone
  • Tangerine Dream
  • Toto
  • Tracy Chapman
  • The Ventures
  • Doc Watson & Richard Watson
  • The Weavers
  • The White Stripes
  • Josh White
  • Demis Roussos
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Grateful Dead
  • Conway Twitty
  • Shawn Mullins
  • Guster
  • The Street Walkers
  • Tim O’Brien

The traditional lyrics, as recorded by Lomax, are as follows:

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl,
And me, O God, for one.
If I had listened what Mamma 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 sweetheart, 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 hoboin’ 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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_House_of_the_Rising_Sun

Traditional Lyrics (another version)

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
Its been the ruin of many a poor girl
And me, Oh Lord! Was one
My mother was a tailor,
She sewed them new blue jeans.
My lover, he was a gambler, Oh Lord,
Gambled down in New Orleans.
My lover, he was a gambling man,
He went from town to town;
And the only time he was satisfied
Was when he drank his liquor down.
Now the only thing a gambling man needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk;
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk.
If I’d only list’nd when my dear mamma said:
Beware, my child, when you roam,
Keep away from drunkards and all those gambling men,
It’s best by far to come home.
Go tell my baby sister
Never do like I have done
But to shun that house in New Orleans
That they call the Rising Sun.
With one foot on the platform,
And one foot on the train
I’m going back to New Orleans
To wear the ball and chain..
I’m going back to New Orleans
The race is almost run;
I’m going back to spend the rest of my life.

Alternate Lyrics

There is a house in New Orleans
It’s called the Rising Sun.
And it’s been the ruin
Of many young boys
In God, I know I’m one.
My mother was a tailor,
She sewed my new blue jeans.
My father was a gambling man,
Down in New Orleans.
And the only thing that a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk.
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he is on that drunk.
Oh mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done.
Spend your life in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun.
With one foot on the platform,
Got my fist upon the stage.
Yea I’m going back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain.
That’s alright.
It’s only alright.

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