Rising Sun Blues

Music is a huge part of my life, and, I love to trace how music changes as it’s carried from place to place, and survives through time.

I’d like to share a little timeline education about a favourite that everybody has heard of: Rising Sun Blues. Only, you probably know it as House of the Rising Sun, and you probably think The Animals wrote it.

Many of these “very old” songs are older than audio recording, and until copyright started limiting how artists could use existing music, “folk” music was shared, copied, and transformed as it moved around through space and time by oral tradition. Melodies were borrowed, lyrics were changed. Sometimes you can see where the path divides and one song becomes two (or three), and sometimes, the origin is a mystery.

As it the case with Rising Sun Blues. The earliest recordings of RSB blues are different from each other….which tells us that this song was already known before those recordings, enough so that it had already been transforming.

It was first recorded in 1933 by Tennessee bluegrass singers Tom Ashley & Gwen Foster.
Just four years later in Kentucky, Alan Lomax recorded Georgia Turner, a miner’s daughter and just 16 years old. Alan Lomax was an important music historian, whom you should look up if you’re unfamiliar. We owe a lot to his efforts to collect and preserve the folk music that became the foundation for much of the music we enjoy today.

There were many other versions, and other (different) songs by the same name, but the path of the song we know is picked up again in 1941 by Woody Guthrie, another important figure in the collection and preservation of American folk music.

Woody’s version maintains some of that Appalachian feel that Ashley & Foster’s had, however, it’s in Josh White’s 1947 recording where it starts to relax into a blues song.

As well as infusing it with that bluesy feel, White wrote some new lyrics, and brought the song back to Turner’s perspective, as the song of a woman ruined by the Rising Sun.

There is a very rare recording of Josh White, performing it with his children: Josh Jr and Beverly, in 1961. This is one of the most beautiful and haunting versions of Rising Sun Blues I’ve ever heard, and is the version that I take my influence from when I perform it with my band.

Also in 1961, Bob Dylan beat Dave Van Ronk to the punch, in recording House Of the Rising Sun. Van Ronk is another folk musician worth investigating, as this wasn’t the only time he’d done the legwork of finding and reviving traditional songs, only to see some other artist race him to the recording booth.

And, here’s where it starts to get even more interesting.

Despite Dylan having scooped HotRS from Van Ronk in 1961, it was further scooped from Dylan by The Animals.
Looking for something unique to close their set with, The Animals began playing HotRS while on tour, which became immensely popular, and they took it to the recording booth in 1964.
Fans thought Dylan’s version was a cover, and nobody had heard of Georgia Turner.

The Animals version of House of the Rising Sun was smash hit, and opened the way for many traditional folk songs to be revived and reworked into what became an explosion of critically influential blues & rock music in the 1960’s.

There have been whole books written about this topic, and, this is just my amateur nutshell, gathered mainly by sniffing around the internet and following breadcrumbs. If you’d like to know more about Rising Sun Blues, I recommend Chasing The Rising Sun, by Ted Anthony.