“The House of the Rising Sun” is one of the most popular folk songs ever but what’s it all about??
The song was made popular by The Animals in 1964 and it is a true folk song in that it has many alternate versions and the original author remains unknown.
There is a house in New Orleans
“The House of the Rising Sun” takes place in New Orleans as suggested in the song and several people believe that it is about a brothel. According to musician, historian and song collector Alan Lomax, “Rising Sun” is used as the name of a brothel in some traditional english folk songs from the 16th century.
Many people believed (including myself before researching) that before The Animals version was released, the song was primarily told from the women’s perspective, but it has gone back and forth throughout time.
First known recording of the song by Clarence Tom Ashely was in the male perspective. Personally, I enjoy to singing it from the female perspective because I believe it serves the story of the song better.
Is the song based on true events?
When you look into the truth behind this classic ballad I think it’s in the message and not the actual facts.
There have been several locations said to be the actual House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans.
- A Hotel in the French Quarter which burned down in the 1820s
- The Rising Sun Cafe in the 1860s
- The Rising Sun Hall in the late 1800s located in the Carrollton neighborhood
- A New Orleans guidebook says the actual house 1614 Esplanade Avenue between 1862 and 1874 and was said to have been named after its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname means “the rising sun” in French.
Nothing has been confirmed for any of these
Dave Van Ronk (who most likely inspired the sound for the Animals version of the song) said he saw a picture of a rising sun on a old women’s prison in New Orleans which could also be the the setting for the song since some believe that the story is about a woman who kills her alcoholic abusive father and then has to go to prison citing the “ball and chain” lyric
The House of the Rising Sun is the perfect example of a folk song whose truth is not in the lyrics but in the music and delivery.
True or not, there is a lesson…
All forms of music stretch the truth to the point of hyperbole to serve the message of the song. The House of the Rising Sun sung from any perspective tells the story of suffering, it’s a warning to be careful of the decisions you make and who you surround yourself with.
To me, this is a song about staying true to yourself and staying in control of your life told from the regretful perspective of someone who did not.
This is evident to me in the haunting lines “tell my baby sister not to do what I have done shun that house in New Orleans, they call the Rising Sun”
That’s the truth of this old folk ballad even though many of the facts surrounding the song remain unverified. Sometimes the truth is just in the music itself.