Chances are you’ve probably heard the 60’s hit, House of the Rising Sun. But did you know that it’s a traditional folk song?
The original lament can be traced back to American miners in the 1900’s. And the mysteries of its roots before then are up for debate.
However it came to be, House of the Rising Sun has been covered and remade by several great musicians.
Here’s a little more history and our picks for the top five covers.
Let’s take a look!
The History of House of the Rising Sun
House of the Rising Sun is a traditional folk song that has been passed along for generations. Folk songs are like fairy tales; people pass them on orally, leaving room to change with each telling or singing. Although the lyrics were first transcribed in 1925, the prior history remains murky.
Famous ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax traces the House of the Rising Sun back to a ballad called Matty Groves. This would bring Rising Sun back to Northern England circa 1600.
Folklorist Vance Randolf disagrees, theorizing a root in French immigrants from the 16th century. The reality is that nobody knows, but many still love guessing.
Author Ted Anthony’s intrigue resulted in a book he titled Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of An American Song. Anthony’s work traced possible origins back to American miners, medicine shows, and rail workers.
The oldest known recording is by Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1933. This was an upbeat, old-timey Appalachian ditty. Alan Lomax produced several field recordings of locals singing their version during the 1940s.
Dave Van Ronk
As recording albums became more accessible in the late 40s and 50s, dozens of covers emerged. Folk singer Dave Van Ronk’s remake was probably the most influential. He was a big player in the folk-blues scene and performed regularly in Greenwich Village during the late 50s and early 60s.
Although Van Ronk didn’t release his recording of House of the Rising Sun until 1964, his earlier live performances influenced many to come.
After hearing one of Lomax’s field recordings, Van Ronk created his musical arrangement of the tune. He shifted the chord progression by way of a descending bassline and slowed the tempo a bit too. Van Ronk’s arrangement became the bedrock for most covers since the late ’50s.
The lyrics describe a house in New Orleans. They speak to the life of common folk – a tailor, a gambler, a most likely a prostitute. Old versions of the song talk of the ruin of girls and some later versions of boys.
The setting in New Orleans has led many to assume the song is about a brothel or a sleazy hotel. Although there was a hotel called Rising Sun in New Orleans long ago, the link is merely conjecture.
Sometimes the best things about a fairy tale are the mysteries of whether the tale is true. And sometimes lyrics are just lyrics. We like to leave House of the Rising Sun to keep wandering, as it always has.
And now, here are five great covers of the tune.
#5 Joan Baez
Joan Baez is one of the most well-known folk singers in American history. Civil rights and social causes were as much a part of her upbringing as any basic human necessity. Baez claims she was gifted with a big beautiful voice and chose to use it to help fight for justice. She was a hit from the get, with her breakthrough debut album in 1960.
Almost every track on Baez’s first album covered traditional folk songs. Baez adapted and arranged each to suit her voice and guitar picking. Her remake of House of the Rising Sun is one of the first recordings influenced by Van Ronk’s live version.
That said, Baez was clearly a connoisseur of traditional folk songs. Many folk singers aspire to the power and heart she brought to her music.
#4 Frijid Pink
Frijid Pink is a 60s psychedelic rock band from Detroit. They released four albums in the early 70s and toured with heavy Detroit bands like MC5 and The Stooges.
Although the band remained relatively underground, drummer and founding member Richard Stevers never stopped playing out. He released four more albums from 2011 to 2018. He just juggled the personnel a bit to make it happen.
Frijid Pink released their cover of House of the Rising Sun in 1970. Recorded as an afterthought at the end of a session, their version became the surprise hit of their debut album. The song reached #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year.
Frijid Pink’s cover of House of the Rising Sun is drenched in heavy metal twang guitar. The first notable style difference is their use of the wah-wah pedal and tremolo arm. Frijid gets even more straight ahead with their delivery of Rising Sun. They take the ¾ time signature and make it a 4/4. Meaning they take that semi-mysterious waltz feel and make it march.
#3 Nina Simone
Nina Simone is one of the most prolific soul singers of all time. Crowned the ‘High Priestess of Soul,’ Simone’s vocal delivery leaves people spellbound. Hypnotic, seductive, determined, mournful, vexed, and empowered are just a few ways to describe her work.
Simone grew up in North Carolina and studied piano from an early age. She established herself as a singer in the 1950s in the New York City area. She recorded over 40 albums and has been given countless awards, both in life and posthumously.
With social commentary songs like Mississippi Goddam, Simone remained dedicated to civil rights and black empowerment throughout her lifetime.
Nina Simone released two versions of House of the Rising Sun. The first in 1962, on her live album, called Nina at the Village Gate. Simone’s second cover of House of the Rising Sun in 1967 is a glorious rendition. Seven minutes long, faster, and filled with original instrumentation, this remake can be found on Nina Sings The Blues.
#2 Bob Dylan
Chances are you’ve heard of Bob Dylan. But in case you haven’t, we’ll start by saying he’s played out and toured almost every single year since 1962. Since 1988, he’s played about 100 dates per year. He’s a visual artist, writer, and social activist with over 40 albums under his belt.
In 2016, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whether you love him, hate him, or just don’t get the appeal, you have to admit Bob Dylan is a significant figure in American history. But nobody’s perfect.
Bob Dylan was part of the same folk scene of the New York early 60s as Dave Van Ronk, Woody Guthrie, and Joan Baez. He recorded his cover of House of the Rising Sun on his debut album in 1962. And it’s pretty great.
Unfortunately, he kind of ripped it from his buddy Van Ronk. Dylan had heard Van Ronk play it live several times. Van Ronk had even shared his arrangement with Dylan. Dylan promptly recorded a version of the song, using Van Ronk’s arrangement, before asking permission. Ouch.
That said, Dylan’s version of House of the Rising Sun is tops. And we’ll say he got his fair dose of humble pie a few years later when the epic rendition by The Animals came out.
#1 The Animals
The Animals’ cover of House of the Rising Sun feels like the song was meant for them. The lyrics belted out through singer Eric Burdon feel like an urgently delivered message. And it’s hard to say from where – we just know it’s necessary. They recorded the song in one take on May 18th, 1964.
The single was the breakthrough hit for The Animals and charted worldwide. The remake is in the Grammy Hall Of Fame and is considered one of the most highly influential rock songs of all time. Rock critic Dave Marsh coined it as the first-ever folk-rock hit.
The Animals didn’t write the lyrics, and they attribute the musical arrangement to Dylan’s cover. Still, it feels like House of the Rising Sun belongs to The Animals. Maybe the song was just waiting for them to arrive.
From Mysterious Beginnings
The origins of House of the Rising Sun remain a mystery. And exploring its history is both enchanting and educational. You may find yourself curious about other traditional folk songs and how they get to one musician or another. But one thing is sure: the cover of House of the Rising Sun by The Animals is The Greatest! Do you agree?