August 1964, The Animals' singing 'The House of the Rising Sun' during a performance on ITV's 'Ready Steady Go' programme. L to r, Alan Price (keyboard and vocalist) Chas Chandler (bass guitar), vocalist Eric Burdon, John Steele (drums) and Hilton Valentine (lead guit)
Photo by John Drysdale/Keystone Features/Getty Images

'House of the Rising Sun': The Appalachian Folk Origins of the Rock Classic

British Rock band The Animals struck gold with the release of their 1964 hit single, "The House of the Rising Sun." After shooting to the top of the UK pop charts, "The House of the Rising Sun" became a transatlantic hit, topping charts in the US, Canada, and other countries. It's also a song beloved in the country music community due to its folk origins and notable country covers.

The Animals version

The song takes on a haunting feeling as Animals lead singer Eric Burdon sings of a house called the rising sun "down in New Orleans," which has been "the ruin of many a poor boy." Many believe the house Burdon sings about is a brothel, but there have also been theories that it may be a women's prison or a gambling house. Either way, the house in question is a place where people spend their lives in "sin and misery," and the song serves as a cautionary tale warning others not to fall victim and be stuck in the "ball and chain" of the house.

"House of the Rising Sun" became the Animals' signature song and remains one of the most iconic they have ever released.

Notable covers

The song became a hit in the '60s and continues to be recognizable even to casual music fans to this day. "The House of the Rising Sun" has been covered many times since The Animals' version by artists including Frijid Pink, Five Finger Death Punch, and notably, Dolly Parton. Parton's version was released in 1981 from her 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs album. In this version, Parton sings from the perspective of a woman who works as a sex worker at the house of the rising sun and cautions other women about following in her footsteps. Parton's version reached No. 14 on the Country charts and crossed over to the Pop Charts, landing at No. 77 on the Hot 100 and No. 33 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Parton also performed the song on an episode of her variety show, Dolly, in New Orleans.

Tracing the Song's Origins

The Animals may have given "The House of the Rising Sun" international fame, but the song's life started long before Eric Burdon first heard it performed by singer Johnny Handle in a Newcastle, England club. In fact, no one definitively knows where the song came from or who wrote it, but historians do know it began as a traditional folk song. Some theorize that a form of the song originated as an English folk song and slowly made its way to America, but regardless of where it came from, it started gaining popularity in the Appalachian region of the US.

The oldest recording of the song is a version called "Rising Sun Blues" by Tennessee artist Clarence "Tom" Ashley and Gwen Foster, released in 1933. In 1938, ethnomusicologist, folklorist, and archivist Alan Lomax recorded a 16-year-old girl named Georgia Turner sing it in eastern Kentucky.

From there, the song was recorded by many different artists, sometimes with changing titles and lyrics. Other artists who recorded early versions of the song include Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Libby Holman, Lead Belly, Glenn Yarbrough, Ronnie Gilbert, Pete Seeger, Andy Griffith, Miriam Makeba, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Tim Hardin, The Chambers Brothers, and Bob Dylan. Dylan recorded the tune for his debut album released in 1962, appearing as "House of the Risin' Sun"

Once The Animals' frontman Burdon heard the song, the band arranged their own version and recorded it in one take in May 1964. Because of the song's folk origin, The Animals' version was described as the very first folk-rock hit. The song has since been named number 122 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

"The House of the Rising Sun" Lyrics (The Animals Version)

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 gambling man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time he is satisfied
Is when he's on a 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

READ MORE: 'Light of a Clear Blue Morning': Dolly Parton Wrote The Song After Leaving 'The Porter Wagoner Show'