The Time Bob Dylan Stole Dave Van Ronk’s Arrangement for “House of the Rising Sun”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Known in the 1960s as the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” folk artist Dave Van Ronk was every songwriter’s favorite songwriter.

So much so that even the great Bob Dylan stole from him, as you’ll see below.

Born David Kenneth Ritz Van Ronk on June 30, 1936, the songwriter and performer passed away on February 10, 2002. In between those years, he earned popularity as a traditionalist, strumming his acoustic and writing tunes in the vein of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

He was a mainstay in the buzzing, creative Greenwich Village in New York City. There, he became pals and colleagues with artists like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and more.

But Van Ronk, along with writing songs for himself like “Bad Dream Blues” and “River Come Down” was instrumental in at least one tune for the Bard, Bob Dylan.

“House of the Rising Sun,” Bob Dylan

Traditional, Arranged by Dave Van Ronk

Today, everyone knows the version of the song, “House of the Rising Sun,” by the Animals. But that rock classic has deep roots in the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s. The song tells the story of a life gone to shambles because of the temptations that the city of New Orleans offers so readily. The first known written version dates back to the 1930s but the song likely extends further back.

But while The Animals’ 1964 rendition is most famous today, it was a song that appeared on Bob Dylan’s very first album, Bob Dylan. The 1962 LP included mostly covers of folk and traditional songs. Famously, though, Dylan, well, stole the arrangement for the song from Van Ronk. The topic is discussed at some length in the legendary 2005 Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home.

The Animals play the song starting: A-minor, C, D, F, Amin, C, E, E. But Van Ronk during their time in New York together showed Dylan an alternate way to play it. That version starts on A-minor but keeps the chord going with a different, descending baseline played with the pinky and middle finger. Dylan then recorded Van Ronk’s arrangement without Van Ronk’s permission, as you can see in the clip below.

“That was very, very annoying,” Van Ronk admits.

Photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns via Getty Images

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