The Animals’ world famous version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ was at the top of the US charts for three weeks in September 1964. It was the only No.1 single the band had ever had in the UK and the US, and it remains a definitive piece of mid-60s folk rock.
It’s unclear when the song was first written, but the lyrics bear some conceptual resemblance to the 16th century traditional folk ballad ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, which itself has a number of variants. The melody is believed to have its origins in the 17th century English folk song ‘Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave’, also known as ‘Matty Groves’.
The earliest known recording of the song was made by folk musicians Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1933, titled ‘Rising Sun Blues’. Ashley had reportedly learnt it from his grandfather. It was then recorded again in 1938, by country singer and Ashley’s friend Roy Acuff. Several earlier recordings exist of songs with similar titles, which don’t actually have anything to do with ‘House of the Rising Sun’, including ‘Rising Sun Blues’ by Ivy Smith from 1927 and ‘The Risin’ Sun’ by Texas Alexander from 1928. The best-known version of the lyrics was written by singer and guitarist Josh White, who recorded his rendition in 1947.
Several interpretations exist as to what the house referred to in the song was and where it had been located. The most popular explanation is perhaps the one attributing the name to a brothel, although “Rising Sun” also used to be a common name for pubs in England. In any case, the original house probably had not stood in New Orleans, but had been relocated there by travelling performers. However, a couple of different buildings in New Orleans have actually been suggested to have been the one referred to, including a hotel in the French Quarter that burnt down 1822, The Rising Sun restaurant and coffee house, also in the French Quarter, and the Rising Sun Hall in the Carrollton District.
The Animals first began performing ‘House of the Rising Sun’ while touring with Chuck Berry after hearing it being sung by English folk musician Johnny Handle. After receiving an overwhelmingly positive reaction from their audiences, they recorded it in London between two concerts on 18th May 1964, in just one take.
At four and a half minutes in length, the single was considered a little bit too long at the time. In the UK, it was released anyway, while in the US it was edited down to just under three minutes. It was the short version that appeared on the Animals’ self-titled US debut album. Surprisingly, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ wasn’t included on any of the group’s UK albums.
Released on 19th June in the UK and two months later in the US, the song was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, becoming the first non-Beatles British Invasion No.1. It also topped the charts in Canada and Sweden, and made it to the top 10 in Australia, Germany and the Netherlands.
The Animals track has been praised by critics since the time of its release. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 122 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included it in its “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”. It’s 240th on the Recording Industry Association of America’s “Songs of the Century” list, and it has even received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Although Bod Dylan had recorded the song in 1961, the it became so strongly associated with the Animals that Dylan was accused of plagiarism, and, as a result, stopped performing it at his concerts. Other artists that have recorded it include Frijid Pink (1969), Jody Miller (1973), Dolly Parton (1981) and Five Finger Death Punch (2014).