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“The House of the Rising Sun”

Posted by purplemary54 on September 3, 2013

Let’s get the work week off to a cheerful start, shall we?

This is one of the weirdly ominous songs that make you think of terrible things when you hear it.  I think it’s the organ.  Or maybe it’s Eric Burdon’s rough voice, or the lyrics themselves.  “The House of the Rising Sun” makes it very clear that nothing good has ever come of this place, or this character’s life: “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.”  His crime is uncertain–murder or mayhem of some sort.  Nothing is said about what kind of place the Rising Sun actually is, other than a house.  There are theories that the house in question is a brothel, but any confirmation is left out of the song.  (Wikipedia has a good page that includes several different possible meanings; check it out.)

Really, the story of “The House of the Rising Sun” could be the song itself.  It’s one of those folk tunes of unknown origin that populate music.  It’s actually been sung by women more frequently than men–some of the earliest known recordings of the song are by women–which lends some credence to the brothel theory.  I’ve noticed in sampling versions that as long as the production is kept to a minimum, it is a haunting piece of music.  (Too much surrounding noise, from orchestration or what have you, can ruin any song.)  What keeps people coming back, IMO, is the mystery.  There’s so much sadness, and so much left unsaid.

The Animals’ version is probably the most famous one; they had a hit with it in 1965.  Some years ago, however, I read an article at Slate about this song, and it included a link to a much older version sung by a woman.  I wish I could remember who was singing, because that forlorn voice is burned into my memory.  Burdon sounds vaguely threatening.  This young lady sounded like she was waiting for her execution.  I can’t even remember what the arrangement was like, or how the music sounded.  I just remember a clear, sad voice full of regret lamenting “I’m going back to New Orleans to wear that ball and chain.”

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2 Responses to ““The House of the Rising Sun””

  1. My favorite version of this song is Nina Simone’s. But then, my favorite version of any song is Nina Simone’s if one exists. =)

    • She was indeed awesome, in the proper sense of the word. I think I like the Animals’ version because it’s the first one I heard, but if I ever find that other version again, it’ll be in second place.

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