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.
An interview with Eric Burdon revealed that he first heard the song in a club in Newcastle, England, where it was sung by a Northumbrian folk singer called Johnny Handle. The Animals were on tour with Chuck Berry and chose it because they wanted something distinctive to sing. This interview denies assertions that the inspiration for their arrangement came from Bob Dylan. The band enjoyed a huge hit with the song, much to Dylan’s chagrin when his version was referred to as a cover—the irony of which was not lost on Van Ronk, who said the whole issue was a “tempest in a teapot”, and that Dylan stopped playing the song after The Animals’ hit because fans accused Dylan of plagiarism. Dylan has said he first heard The Animals’ version on his car radio and “jumped out of his car seat” because he liked it so much.
Dave Marsh described The Animals’ take on “The House of the Rising Sun” as “the first folk-rock hit”, sounding “as if they’d connected the ancient tune to a live wire”, while writer Ralph McLean of the BBC agreed that “it was arguably the first folk rock tune”, calling it “a revolutionary single” after which “the face of modern music was changed forever.” Dave Van Ronk claims that this version was based on his arrangement of the song.
The Animals’ version transposes the narrative of the song from the point of view of a woman led into a life of degradation, to that of a male, whose father was now a gambler and drunkard, as opposed to the sweetheart in earlier versions.
Various places in New Orleans, Louisiana have been proposed as the inspiration for the song, with varying plausibility. The phrase “House of the Rising Sun” is often understood as a euphemism for a brothel, but it is not known whether or not the house described in the lyrics was an actual or fictitious place. One theory speculated the song is about a daughter who killed her father, an alcoholic gambler who had beaten his wife. Therefore, the House of the Rising Sun may be a jail-house, from which one would be the first person to see the sun rise (an idea supported by the lyric mentioning “a ball and chain,” though that phrase has been used as slang to describe marital relationships for at least as long as the song has been in print). Because the song was often sung by women, another theory is that the House of the Rising Sun was where prostitutes were detained while they were treated for syphilis. Since cures with mercury were ineffective, going back was very unlikely.
Only two candidates have historical documentation as using the name “Rising Sun”, both having listings in old period city directories. The first was a small short-lived hotel on Conti Street in the French Quarter in the 1820s. It burned down in 1822. An excavation and document search in early 2005 found evidence supporting this claim, including an advertisement with language that may have euphemistically indicated prostitution. An unusually large number of pots of rouge and cosmetics were found by archaeologists at the site.
The second possibility was a late 19th century “Rising Sun Hall” on the riverfront of the uptown Carrollton neighborhood, which seems to have been a building owned and used for meetings of a Social Aid & Pleasure Club, commonly rented out for dances and functions. It also is no longer extant. Definite links to gambling or prostitution (if any) are undocumented for either of these buildings.
Another claim is that The House of the Rising Sun actually existed between 1862 and about 1874 and was run by a Madam Marianne LeSoleil Levant whose name translates from French as “the rising sun”. Bizarre New Orleans, a guide book on New Orleans, asserts that the real house was at 1614 Esplanade Avenue between 1862 and 1874 and was purportedly named for its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant.
It is also possible that the “House of the Rising Sun” is a metaphor for either the slave pens of the plantation, the plantation house, or the plantation itself, which were the subjects and themes of many traditional blues songs. Dave van Ronk claimed in his autobiography that he had seen pictures of the old Orleans Parish Women’s Prison, the entrance to which was decorated with a rising sun design. He considered this proof that the House of the Rising Sun had been a nickname for the prison.
The gender of the singer is flexible. Earlier versions of the song are often sung from the female perspective, a woman who followed a drunk or a gambler to New Orleans and became a prostitute in the House of the Rising Sun (or, depending on one’s interpretation, an inmate in a prison of the same name), such as in Joan Baez’s version on her self-titled 1960 debut album, as was Jody Miller’s 1973 single. The Animals version was sung from a perspective of a male, warning about gambling and drinking. Bob Dylan’s 1962 version and Shawn Mullins’ recent covered version on his album 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor is sung from the female perspective.
Not everyone, however, believes that the house actually existed. Pamela D. Arceneaux, a research librarian working at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans, is quoted as saying:
“I have made a study of the history of prostitution in New Orleans and have often confronted the perennial question, ‘Where is the House of the Rising Sun?’ without finding a satisfactory answer.”
Although it is generally assumed that the singer is referring to a brothel, there is actually nothing in the lyrics that indicate that the ‘house’ is a brothel. Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics.