“House of the Rising Sun” by British rock band, The Animals, is a folk song steeped in rock and roll history. On July 13, 1964, the song hit number one on the U.K. charts. It would sit at the top of the U.S. charts two months later, occupying the top spot for two weeks in September.
“House of the Rising Sun”: Folklore
This song is steeped in mystery. It is one of few songs whose origin story, recording history, and possible basis in reality, warrant its own documentary. I have not heard of such a documentary, but I would watch it, if it were a real thing.
Listeners have wanted to know if the “House” in the title is a real place. The truth is, it could be one of a few places. And, because the song was recorded in the 1960s, the next logical question is when did the events of the song take place? That, too, is a mystery. Depending on what source a person tracks down, the date of origin could range from the 1860s to 1937.
Singers of all kinds have taken on the song. Anthropologists have recorded field hands and early blues singers performing their takes on the tune. At this point, because there is no one person or group that can lay claim to the song, anyone can record it. And looking at the song’s recording history, it seems as though almost everyone has.
But why? What is the allure to this song?
(Folk) Rock Gothic: “House of the Rising Sun”
The song is not “folk” in this sense that some people think of—no acoustic guitars and helpful platitudes. It is “folk” in that it is a song of the people, without a specific origin. It is open to interpretation.
But the lyrics are dark. I remember hearing this song as a child. It was The Animals’ version, and the 6/8 time signature, the slowly rollicking rhythm of a mournful organ and melancholy bass and guitar, pounding gravely over a drumline that sounds like it is almost all high-hat. And of course, there is Eric Burdon’s voice. It was low and pained. Even his scream was a gravelly bellow. That was frightening and beautiful for a child who loved rock music. I was old enough to know that there were different states, and I imagined that he was from New Orleans, and fresh out of jail, he’d chosen to write a song about it. The mesmerizing alchemy that forms when the organ and guitars mesh always makes me freeze a little bit.
This is rock and roll. Certainly, audiences are used to debauchery every now and then. Maybe. What they weren’t necessarily ready for was a song of folk origins to chill them to the bone. This is not a song with a happy ending. This is not an ode to good times. Something happened in the real world of “House of the Rising Sun” that changed its narrator forever. Fans and performers all over the world have gravitated to this song of repentance-come-too-late. Now, more than 50 years later, the song still haunts, and it still rocks.