One of the things I enjoy doing is learning more about the different periods of American history and the 1960′s have been on my radar for some time now. It is a rarity that I am able to have much time at the end of the year in my American History classes to spend much time discussing the Cold War. My hope is to require three years of Social Studies in the future and split up my American history classes after Reconstruction in order to spend more time with current American history.
When looking more closely at the Vietnam War it is hard not to get into the music of the era. I have always liked The Animals song “House of the Rising Sun” from 1964, but I had no idea the song was so old and had such an interesting history.
From YouTube: Alger “Texas” Alexander (September 12, 1900 — April 18, 1954) was an American blues singer from Jewett, Texas. In November 1928, Alexander recorded what has been believed by some to be the earliest version of “The House of the Rising Sun.”
As you can hear from this video, the lyrics are not the ones you hear in The Animals version but I think you can hear the melody is similar.
Historians have not been able to definitively identify The House Of The Rising Sun, but here are the two most popular theories: 1) The song is about a brothel in New Orleans. “The House Of The Rising Sun” was named after Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (which means “Rising Sun” in French) and was open for business from 1862 (occupation by Union troops) until 1874, when it was closed due to complaints by neighbors. It was located at 826-830 St. Louis St.It’s about a women’s prison in New Orleans called the Orleans Parish women’s prison, which had an entrance gate adorned with rising sun artwork. This would explain the “ball and chain” lyrics in the song.The melody is a traditional English ballad, but the song became popular as an African-American Folk song. It was recorded by Texas Alexander in the 1920s, then by a number of other artists including Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Josh White and later Nina Simone. It was her version The Animals first heard. No one can claim rights to the song, meaning it can be recorded and sold royalty-free. Many bands recorded versions of this after it became a hit for The Animals. (Thanks to music historian and author Ron Foster.)
The Folk music historian Alan Lomax recorded a version in 1937 by a 16-year-old girl named Georgia Turner. In this context, it is sung in the first person, present tense with the singer lamenting how the House of the Rising Sun has ruined her life. In this traditional Folk version, the main character is either a prostitute or a prisoner.
Here we have Bob Dylan’s version of the song with Dave Van Ronk giving us some details of how Dylan came around to recording the song.
Dave Van Wonk’s version of the song…my least favorite.
And finally the version made famous by The Animals in 1964…and I must admit this is my favorite version.