Hello there! In this edition of Tim’s Cover Story we review
House of the Rising Sun, a song that has taken a fascinating journey through the realms of traditional, folk and rock music. According to Wikipedia:
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. There is also a mentioning of a house-like pub called the “Rising Sun” in the classic “Black Beauty” tale, which was set in London, England and was published in 1877 which may or may not have influenced the song’s title …The oldest known existing recording is by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it for Vocalion Records in 1934.
The song was collected by (who else?) folklorist Alan Lomax, curator of the Archive of American Folk Song for the Library of Congress. Lomax recorded various versions of what he called Rising Sun Blues on a trip to Kentucky in the late 1930s. The song rapidly became a folk staple, with versions by Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Leadbelly and The Weavers, among others.
The song concerns a woman trapped in a brothel in New Orleans who tells the sad story of her unhappy childhood and even unhappier future prospects.
There is a house down in New Orleans they call the rising sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, oh God, I’m one.
… My sweetheart was a gambler, Lord, down in New Orleans.
Now the only thing a gambler needs is a suitcase and a trunk,
And the only time he’s satisfied is when he’s on a drunk.
She is about to board a train that will take her back to NOLA.
I’m going back to New Orleans, my race is almost run
I’m going back to end my life down in the Rising Sun.
Joan Baez and House of the Rising Sun:
We’ll begin our comparison of “Rising Sun” songs with Joan Baez’ rendition that appeared on her eponymous first album issued in 1960. Joan Baez has now been performing for 55 years, and is an American folk icon. She is in many respects a female counterpart to Pete Seeger. Her bright, shining voice and staunch convictions have been used for decades to further progressive causes. She became a legend in the civil-rights movement after performing We Shall Overcome at the 1963 Washington March, the site of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The photo below shows Joan and Bob Dylan at that rally. She was also active in anti-Vietnam war activities, including draft resistance efforts and tax protests against the war. She has also been a champion for women’s rights.
On spring break in 1961, some of my buddies and I drove in to New York City for a weekend – just turned 18, ’57 Chevy convertible, top down, feelin’ groovy. It was my first time in The City, and as soon as we arrived there we headed up to Greenwich Village – the beatniks, the hipsters, “where it’s happening.” We ended up at a place on Washington Square that featured live music called Café Bizarre. It was kind of a dump, and appears on the right in the photo below.
After about half an hour, a young lady appeared in a blue denim dress with long straight black hair streaming all the way down to her butt. She seemed to be less than five feet tall, with a guitar nearly as large as she was. However, when she commenced to sing it was a revelation. Her voice was exceptionally clear and strong, with a piercing vibrato. I had never heard anything like it. Of course, it was Joan Baez. I have since seen her perform several times, and I always marvel at her voice – initially for the clarity and timbre, more recently for the staying power. Sitting about 30 feet away from her at Café Bizarre was a palpable, unforgettable thrill.
In her first few albums Joan Baez worked her way through the catalog of traditional American and English folk ballads. She later expanded her portfolio to include modern-day folk songs and pop tunes. She became a folk superstar, and has recorded scores of albums. Because of my experience seeing her in Café Bizarre I still find her earliest songs haunting and riveting. I can’t get enough of the compilations of her early work on the albums Joan Baez I and Joan Baez II.
The Joan Baez version of House of the Rising Sun is a traditional one. It was recorded when she was 19, with her remarkable voice in full flower. The song features her trademark vocals and fine guitar work, and is an American folk classic.
Dave Van Ronk and House of the Rising Sun:
A couple of years after Joan Baez recorded her version of House of the Rising Sun, an alternative version was crafted by Brooklyn native and Greenwich Village folksinger Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk was a big, burly bear of a man with a large unkempt reddish beard and an infectious laugh. He was a fixture in the Northeastern folk scene and though he had a reputation as a curmudgeon he was highly regarded by his peers, and considered a friend and mentor by many in the Eastern Seaboard folksinging community in the 50s and 60s. In addition to befriending Bob Dylan, he mentored and promoted artists like Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell and Rambling Jack Elliott. Van Ronk is widely believed to be the inspiration for the title character in the Coen brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Below is a photo of Van Ronk performing in New York in about 1964.
Van Ronk played his version of House of the Rising Sun frequently at a number of venues. However, he had not recorded it before Bob Dylan appeared on the scene. Here is Van Ronk’s version of the tune.
As you can tell, this is a much grittier take than the Joan Baez rendition. Van Ronk’s delivery is very striking and effective. With its raspy vocals and clever chord progressions it became one of his most-requested songs.
Bob Dylan and House of the Rising Sun:
Bob Dylan moved to New York in 1961 with a burning desire to make a name for himself. Dylan befriended Woody Guthrie, then in a New York hospital dying from Huntington’s disease, and Van Ronk took a particular interest in the ambitious and talented young folksinger. Dylan had high praise for his mentor. The Wikipedia article on Van Ronk contains the following quote from Dylan:
“I’d heard Van Ronk back in the Midwest on records and thought he was pretty great, copied some of his recordings phrase for phrase. … Van Ronk could howl and whisper, turn blues into ballads and ballads into blues. I loved his style. He was what the city was all about. In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme.”
Van Ronk was taken aback when Dylan announced his interest in recording House of the Rising Sun, particularly since Dylan’s styling would be eerily similar to Van Ronk’s own version which was not yet recorded. Here is an interview with Dave Van Ronk with comments by Bob Dylan and a snippet of Dylan’s cover of House of the Risin’ Sun (sic). This is a clip from Martin Scorsese’s great 2005 documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home.
Here Van Ronk gives a good-natured, bemused recounting of his interaction with Dylan regarding House of the Rising Sun. Although Van Ronk wanted the opportunity to record the song before his friend “Bobby” came out with a copycat rendition, his views did not prevail; Dylan recorded the song in late 1961 and it appeared on his first album Bob Dylan, released in spring 1962.
At this time, Dylan was just establishing what would become one of the greatest careers in folk music and then rock and roll. He had moved from Minnesota to New York in the winter of 1961, started performing in Greenwich Village and fairly rapidly gained a reputation as a promising folksinger. His first eponymous album was produced by John Hammond, and in fall 1962 he was taken on as a client by super-agent Albert Grossman. Dylan’s first album is extremely interesting as it contains only two original songs, the remainder being either traditional folksongs or covers of songs by fellow artists. Here is a photo of Bob Dylan recording his first album for Columbia Records in November 1961.
At this time Dylan had not yet settled on what would eventually become his trademark style, and on his first album he was clearly experimenting with a variety of different vocal treatments. This is obvious in his Rising Sun cover. It is strongly mannered, and presented in a style that closely mimics the Dave Van Ronk version. Although it is recognizable as a Dylan song, it is also significantly different from his later trademark style.
By the time Dylan’s second album came out a year later, he was well on his way to stardom. During this period he was helped out by Joan Baez, who used her own prestige to promote his career, and by mainstream artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, whose cover of Blowin’ in the Wind greatly increased his visibility at a time when Dylan’s musical style was considered harsh and grating. In fact, I vividly remember being thrown out of parties when I tried to play Dylan’s first album.
The Animals and House of the Rising Sun:
We now move to England and the British blues quintet The Animals. The group was formed when vocalist Eric Burdon joined forces with the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues combo in Newcastle. The group initially consisted of keyboardist Price, guitarist Hilton Valentine, drummer John Steel and bassist Chas Chandler. The Animals had a number of hits in the 60s, but experienced the vicissitudes common to so many bands of that era – numerous personnel changes, toxic management, shifts in musical focus, arguments over `ownership’ of the group’s name, etc.
In 1964, The Animals heard House of the Rising Sun while on tour at a club in Newcastle, England. They immediately recognized its potential as a song for their group and incorporated it into their act. On May 18, 1964 they recorded the song at a London studio in a single take.
The Animals’ version became a smash pop hit. As described in Wikipedia:
The Animals’ rendering of the song is recognized as one of the classics of British pop music. Writer Lester Bangs labeled it “a brilliant rearrangement” and “a new standard rendition of an old standard composition.” It ranked number 122 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. It is also one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The RIAA placed it as number 240 on their Songs of the Century list. In 1999 it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. It has long since become a staple of oldies and classic rock radio formats. A 2005 Five poll ranked it as Britain’s fourth favourite number one song.
Here is a live version of the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. Note the ‘mod’ jackets so typical of early British Invasion groups.
And here is the studio version of the song:
You can easily understand why this song was a sensation. It begins with an electrifying guitar riff by Hilton Valentine, and is complemented by scintillating keyboards from Alan Price on his Vox Continental organ. Burdon’s singing is wonderful – he is a terrific bluesman and his powerful vocals here are unforgettable. Note that The Animals change the gender of the singer, who now becomes a man while the `sweetheart’ gambler from the original version morphs into the young man’s father. The song was an instant success, rocketing up to #1 on the British charts in July 1964 and subsequently topping the U.S. Billboard charts in September of that year. It became The Animals’ signature tune, and many people credit it with being the first ‘folk-rock’ song.
But it is also clear why accusations of plagiarism have now continued for decades. Bob Dylan’s styling of House of the Rising Sun clearly is based directly on Dave Van Ronk’s version of the song – Dylan makes no secret of this. However, The Animals’ Rising Sun sounds like a direct pop/blues rendering of the Van Ronk/Dylan version. The Animals have always steadfastly denied this. As pointed out in Van Ronk’s earlier interview, it was ironic that after Dylan recorded the song, Van Ronk had to stop performing Rising Sun when his audiences accused him of plagiarizing Dylan’s version; but once The Animals’ version was released, Dylan also had to stop performing it as his audiences thought he was copying the Animals!
A source of friction within the band was the credit for `arranging’ the song on The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. According to Wikipedia:
The arranging credit went only to Alan Price. According to Burdon, this was simply because there was insufficient room to name all five band members on the record label, and Alan Price’s first name was first alphabetically. However, this meant that only Price received songwriter’s royalties for the hit, a fact that has caused bitterness ever since, especially with Valentine.
The songwriting credit was crucial because radios pay royalties when they play a song, but the only person receiving royalties is the songwriter and not the artist. As you can imagine, a rock song like House of the Rising Sun would generate substantial royalties from classic rock radio stations even today.
Let’s finish off by reviewing the subsequent history of The Animals. After their smash success with House of the Rising Sun they produced several acclaimed British Invasion blues/rock songs, including notably We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. However, the group began to fragment only a year later; after a number of personnel changes the group dissolved and Burdon moved to California as a solo artist. The Animals’ financial management was considered shoddy even by the relatively lax standards of the early 60s, and the group members apparently came away with very little money. However, bassist Chas Chandler later became the manager for Jimi Hendrix, and The Animals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.