Usually, when I do a “One Song/Three Versions” post I start with the original. Well, in this case, good luck with all that. Nobody seems to know who wrote it but we do know the oldest known recording (September 1933).
According to Wikipedia, it was released under the title “Rising Sun Blues,” and is by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster. Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley, who got married around the time of the Civil War, which suggests that the song could have been written years before the turn of the century. If there even was a House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans (much dispute over this) then it was either about a whorehouse or a women’s prison. Or, neither. Take your pick.
A while back I wrote about folklorist Alan Lomax who traveled around the US, mostly the South, making recordings of otherwise unknown folk tunes. In the late 30s, he recorded a version by Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter of a local miner. He called it “The Rising Sun Blues.”
On the website American Blues Scene, blogger Matt Marshall makes an interesting observation -“What is interesting is that, while both Ashley and Turner come from the Appalachia region, Clarence was from Tennessee and Georgia was from Kentucky. The two were over 100 miles apart, a considerable distance in the 1930s, yet both sang eerily similar versions of the song.
In an age where few could afford record players or radios, how did so many people learn the same music such as the “Rising Sun?” And in an era before cars were common and highways were still 25 years away, how did songs like this one manage to spread across the country?” Considering this was the 1930s and it was amidst the Great Depression, it could (literally) have been hobos hitching rides on trains or what Steely Dan refers to as a “traveling minstrel show.”
However the music traveled, as more and more folk artists heard it they inevitably recorded their own version. Here is folk singer Dave Van Ronk talking about how Bob Dylan “Jimmy Page’d” it.
“I put a different spin on it by altering the chords and using a bass line that descended in half steps—a common enough progression in jazz, but unusual among folksingers. By the early 1960s, the song had become one of my signature pieces, and I could hardly get off the stage without doing it.
Then, one evening in 1962, I was sitting at my usual table in the back of the Kettle of Fish, and Dylan came slouching in. He had been up at the Columbia studios with John Hammond, doing his first album. He was being very mysterious about the whole thing, and nobody I knew had been to any of the sessions except Suze, his lady.
I pumped him for information, but he was vague. Everything was going fine and, ‘Hey, would it be okay for me to record your arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun?’ Oh, shit. ‘Jeez, Bobby, I’m going into the studio to do that myself in a few weeks. Can’t it wait until your next album?’ A long pause. ‘Uh-oh’. I did not like the sound of that.
‘What exactly do you mean, ‘Uh-oh’?” ‘Well,’ he said sheepishly, ‘I’ve already recorded it.'” (Maybe this is why Joni Mitchell years later referred to Dylan as a plagiarist.) Note that in Dylan’s version he says “many a poor girl” and sings it from a female perspective which some believed to be the “correct” version:
According to Songfacts, “The Animals performed this song while touring England with Chuck Berry in May 1964. It went over so well that they recorded it between stops on the tour.
In an interview, Eric Burdon explained: “‘House of the Rising Sun’ is a song that I was just fated to. It was made for me and I was made for it. It was a great song for the Chuck Berry tour because it was a way of reaching the audience without copying Chuck Berry. It was a great trick and it worked. It actually wasn’t only a great trick, it was a great recording.” It was, in fact, a one-take recording as the band had played it so often “live” that they didn’t even need rehearsal.
Released in 1964, The Animals’ version* – an early folk-rock tune – went to Number One in both the US and the UK. Songfacts states it as gospel that Dylan heard the Animals version and made the shift over to electric which would bring it full circle. However, it’s just as likely that this is apocryphal and that his Woody Guthrie-inspired folk persona had run its course.
And so we come to the inspiration for this post, the one and only Joni Mitchell herself. This is from an archives album. It is beautiful, haunting and quite affecting. It is as clear as running water. (No Spotify).
*When I went to find a picture of the sheet music, very often I found ones that said Words and Music by Alan Price, the Animals’ keyboardist. (!) 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 among the other band members ever since. (Why any of them should get any royalties at all is a mystery to me.)