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House of the Rising Sun: The Animals, 1964

October 21, 2022

Perrin Milliken

Let the arpeggiated A minor chord sound! We have arrived at the most recognizable iteration of the song in question. British pop-rock outfit The Animals sent “House of the Rising Sun,” our meager folk tune, to the top of the UK singles chart in 1964 with an arrangement that, in keeping with the folk idiom, was not their own handiwork.

We have established that tracing the origins of a folk song is a fool’s errand, so let’s settle by tracking down the beginnings of the instrumental arrangement that launched “House of the Rising Sun” into the popular stratosphere. And for that, we find ourselves, as promised, in early 1960s Greenwich Village, New York City, during the halcyon days of a thriving, post-McCarthy folk scene. Village denizens—Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Richie Havens, Mary Travers, et al.—had long incorporated “House of the Rising Sun,” a folk standard by then, into their coffeehouse circuit setlist, but when a surly, young folk singer by the name Bob Dylan started hanging around the Village, a spark of intrigue ignited from the dusty chords of an already-ancient tune. Dylan heard singer-songwriter Dave Van Ronk play a particularly provocative take of the tune one evening; as it goes, this is the very arrangement that you can hear on a nascent Dylan’s self-titled debut.

What would be an egregious act of thievery becomes more of an act of flattery, at least in retrospect, when placed in the venerable hands of Bob Dylan. T.S. Eliot, one of Dylan’s greatest influences, penned this: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” And Dylan stole. And the Animals stole from Dylan. And all is fair in love and folk music.

It’s noteworthy that the bylaws of possession and control mutate as we move from folk spheres into areas of commercial consequence. How does “commercially viable” folk music even exist—the concept seems to be somewhat of a contradiction.

Regardless of its oxymoronic status, when the Animals made their debut with lead single “House of the Rising Sun,” the humble romp took center pop stage. Van Ronk and Dylan preserved Leadbelly’s wistful narrative, but the Animals—pop progenitors—made some concessions for commercial viability’s sake. A return to he/him pronouns and lines like “Mother was a tailor, yeah, yeah / Sewed my Levi jeans,” track the song’s ascension to widespread appeal. On the technical end, the Animals christened the song with its first electric recording and furthered its makeover by changing the standard 4/4 time signature into a more fervent 6/8 meter.

All the track needed was a bit of industry glitz to align itself with popular taste. But this macabre tale, this house of vices, resonates beyond any sensationalized chordal arrangement. An axiomatic downward trend—some inexorable succumbing to the sirens below—proved itself as something simply becoming of the human condition when the verified hit sold nearly five million copies within one year of its release. In 1964, “House of the Rising Sun” completed its final transgression: at once, the song could enrich the folkways of a distinctly American character—the lore-riddled rambling man—and dominate in spheres of popular consumer culture. Folk becomes fad, and “House of the Rising Sun” officially enters the zeitgeist where it has and will continue to live as a token of the mass American thought-project.

The Animals: “House of the Rising Sun” (1964) – azlyrics.com

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

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s all drunk

Oh mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

Well, 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


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  1. Bruce Lynskey, 1977 says:

    When you discuss The Animals’ cover of “House of the Rising Sun”, you should note Animal keyboardist Alan Price’s brilliant musical arrangement of the song taking it from its traditional 4/4 to 6/8 as well his great performance on his Hammond organ. It spent 3 weeks at #1 on the USA’s Billboard’s Hot 100 charts in late 1964 and would be their only chart top;per in the US, though their catalog includes many other excellent pieces of work. They joined The Beatles, Manfred Mann, and Peter & Gordon as the British acts who dominated the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 during the great British invasion in 1964 – the year that rock/pop music changed forever. The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was also the longest running song at 4 min 40 sec to top the charts at that time.

  2. Bruce Lynskey, 1977 says:

    There’s more to The Animals than meets the eye. The original Animals, founded by Alan Price, featured base player Chas Chandler. After the original Animals disbanded in 1966 (their final 1966 LP, “Animalization”, is their best), Chas Chandler became a talent scout, stumbled upon guitarist Jimmy James performing in a Greenwich Village club, and convinced Jimmy to come back to England with him. Back in London with Jimmy James, Chas recruited bassist Noel Redding, drummer Mitch Mitchell, convinced Jimmy James to go back to his original name, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born – managed by Chas Chandler who had a strong hand in their sound. Eric Burden, the Animals lead singer, formed Eric Burden & the Animals and had a very successful run with them in 1967-68. After that band broke up, Eric Burden teamed up with a local San Francisco funk band called War and had his second biggest chart song of his career in 1970, “Spill the Wine”. War went on to have a very successful career on their own throughout the 1970s. Their 1973 album “The World Is a Ghetto” was Billboard’s top LP of that year.

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