The Songs he didn’t write: Bob Dylan House of the rising sun

The House of the Rising Sun is a traditional folk song, sometimes called Rising Sun Blues. It tells of a life gone wrong in New Orleans; many versions also urge a sibling to avoid the same fate. The most successful commercial version was recorded in 1964 by The Animals.

Bob Dylan recorded it, as House of the risin’ sun,  for his debut album released in 1962. He did it several more times both live and in studio.

Album version:

Like many classic folk ballads, The House of the Rising Sun is of uncertain authorship. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads, and thematically it has some resemblance to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. According to Alan Lomax, “Rising Sun” was used as the name of a bawdy house in two traditional English songs, and it was also a name for English pubs. He further suggested that the melody might be related to a 17th-century folk song, “Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave”, also known as “Matty Groves”, but a survey by Bertrand Bronson showed no clear relationship between the two songs. Lomax proposed that the location of the house was then relocated from England to New Orleans by white southern performers. However, Vance Randolph proposed an alternative French origin, the “rising sun” referring to the decorative use of the sunburst insignia dating to the time of Louis XIV, which was brought to North America by French immigrants.

House of Rising Sun was said to have been known by miners in 1905. The oldest published version of the lyrics is that printed by Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925, in a column “Old Songs That Men Have Sung” in Adventure Magazine. The lyrics of that version begin:

There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one

There is written a very fine book about the history of the song, Chasing The Rising Sun by Ted Anthony (available in many formats at Amazon) for those of you who want to did deeper. The book  discusses Rising Sun as a part of the so called “folk process” , the spread and variation of folk music at large. Great read for those who seek to understand a bit more of the way Dylan writes, and the tradition he is a part of.

Bob Dylan talks about House of the rising sun and Dave Van Ronk explains how Bob Dylan picked the arrangements of the song “House of the rising sun’ from him and appropriated it so well that Dave would not play the song anymore:

Dave Van Ronk’s recording:

The oldest known recording of the song, under the title “Rising Sun Blues”, is by Appalachian artists Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it for Vocalion Records on 6 September 1933. Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather, Enoch Ashley. Roy Acuff, an “early-day friend and apprentice” of Ashley’s, learned it from him and recorded it as “Rising Sun” on 3 November 1938.

Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster – House of the rising sun (1933):

The song was among those collected by folklorist Alan Lomax, who, along with his father, was a curator of the Archive of American Folk Song for the Library of Congress. On an expedition with his wife to eastern Kentucky, Lomax set up his recording equipment in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in the house of singer and activist Tilman Cadle. In 1937 he recorded a performance by Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter of a local miner. He called it The Rising Sun Blues. Lomax later recorded a different version sung by Bert Martin and a third sung by Daw Henson, both eastern Kentucky singers. In his 1941 songbook Our Singing Country, Lomax credits the lyrics to Turner, with reference to Martin’s version.

Georgia Turner – House of the rising sun (1937):

Clarence had said that he learned the song from his grandfather, meaning the song’s origins can be dated to considerably older than 1933. 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? Several have researched the topic of “floating songs”, which, much like the songs themselves, has murky and hard-to-trace origins.

Here is a very different but equally great outtake from 1963 by Bob Dylan (Mackenzie Home Tapes):

Outtake from the Planet Waves sessions 1973:

Live version from Dylan’s tour with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers in 1986:

Bob Dylan House Of The Rising Sun Newcastle 12.04.2007, great live video with Dylan in good guitar form:

The lyrics from Bob Dylan’s recording on the album, Bob Dylan. It is very close to the lyrics that Georgia Turner sang in the Lomax recording, just a bit of shuffeling of the verses…and Dylan repeats the first verse at the end:

There is a house down in New Orleans they call the rising sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, oh God, I’m one.

My mother was a tailor, she sowed these new blue jeans
My sweetheart was a gambler, Lord, down in New Orleans.

Now the only thing a gambler needs is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time when he’s satisfied is when he’s on a drunk.

He fills his glasses up to the brim and he’ll pass the cards around
And the only pleasure he gets out of life is rambling from town to town

Oh tell my baby sister not to do what I have done
But shun that house in New Orleans they call the rising sun.

Well with one foot on the platform and the other foot on the train
I’m going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain.

I’m going back to New Orleans, my race is almost run
I’m going back to end my life down in the rising sun.

There is a house in New Orleans they call the rising sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl and me, oh God, I’m one.

– Hallgeir

2 thoughts on “The Songs he didn’t write: Bob Dylan House of the rising sun”

  1. A great read and listening Hallgeir.. One of the first songs I learned on the guitar many years ago.. Thanks

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