A song is written, and, if it’s special enough, it hangs around waiting for an artist to claim it, putting their indelible stamp on it so that all other versions are henceforth compared to that one unforgettable take. Nobody is sure who wrote “House of the Rising Sun.” But we do know that the Animals, powered by the blustery vocals of Eric Burdon, claimed it.
The musicologist Alan Lomax couldn’t even pinpoint the song’s exact origin, although he found evidence that jazz musicians knew of it even before World War I. Early versions of the song had promoted the meaning that the Rising Sun was a brothel. In these variations, the narrator is a woman bemoaning her return to prostitution. Male singers made it “the ruin of many a poor boy,” which transformed the title establishment into a gambling den.
Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan.
By the time the ’60s rolled around, the folk legend Dave Van Ronk included an intense take on “House of the Rising Sun” as a steady part of his live repertoire. His young acolyte Bob Dylan largely mimicked Van Ronk’s arrangement of the song and included it on his debut album. Across the pond at around the same time, Burdon apparently heard the song from a local folk singer in England. Burdon brought it into the Animals, who electrified the song for their 1964 self-titled debut album. Hilton Valentine played the stoic arpeggiated guitar part that foundations the song, while Alan Price tore into the organ solo as if trying to free every tortured soul trapped in this sinister place.
There is a house in New Orleans / They call the Rising Sun / And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy / And God, I know I’m one, they sing in the chorus.
The Animals record ‘House of the Rising Sun.”
If the music sounded almost supernatural, Burdon’s vocal gave the song its terrestrial heart, one rent in two by the loaded dice and lost bets. He tempers his performance, starting off low and with deadly serious intent to grab your attention. When he soars up an octave, all the pain and anguish come pouring out.
The tragedy of “House of the Rising Sun” is that the narrator seems to have lost his free will. He knows that the house will be his damnation, yet he is en route while he is telling his sad story. At the very least, he tries to use his example to save others—Oh mother, tell you children not to do what I have done. And maybe he even hesitates for just a moment before committing to his return, Well, I got one foot on the platform/The other on the train.
But in the end, he returns. In the final lyrics, Burdon comes out with gale force, bellowing the first lines, There is a house in New Orleans/They call the Rising Sun. As he hits the final two lines, he descends again, with the final words sung with a fierce resignation, almost pride: But it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy/And God, I know I’m one.
Many have sung “House of the Rising Sun” before Eric Burdon took it on with the Animals, and many will sing it in the future. Its psychological insight and philosophical meaning are all too relevant for this song to be anything but timeless. But it’s hard to imagine that anybody will ever again inhabit that doomed soul at the epicenter of the tale quite as well.