We often hear the phrase “music is as old as time”. And if there ever was a track that could prove this statement, it would be “The House of the Rising Sun”. The song, sometimes also known as the “Rising Sun Blues”, is symbolic of American folk music. It is a traditional folk song thought to have made its way from England to the Americas, so old that even academics have trouble dating its origins. However, it eventually got absorbed into popular culture in the 1940s and has since had many recorded versions – including one by Bob Dylan. Yet as critics agree, the most popular rendition was recorded by The Animals.
According to the band’s lead singer Eric Burdon, they were on the lookout for something different from their usual sound when they happened upon “The House of the Rising Sun”;
“It’s not blues, it’s not folk. It’s not even rock. It’s its own thing. It’s the mounting sexual tension of the song, which I changed the point of view from the female to the male. Even before The Animals did it, it was a song that struck me. I heard it in folk clubs in Newcastle, and then I heard Bob Dylan’s version on his first album.”
When The Animals first recorded it, “The House of the Rising Sun” was considered a bit too lengthy to be a radio hit at four-and-a-half minutes. Another distinguishable feature of the track is the now-famous broken chord electric guitar sequence played by The Animals’ Hilton Valentine. The Animals dared to experiment with this folk song, mixing up an electric sound and coming up with a hit folk-rock number.
Recorded in 1964 for their debut album ‘The Animals’, the track was an unprecedented success. It was the first time The Beatles were knocked out of the top spot in charts by another British band and performed well across the Atlantic. “The House of the Rising Sun” became a #1 in the UK Singles, Billboard Hot 100, Cashbox Top 100, and Record World 100 Top Pops charts. The track had endured through the times, and is featured on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Over the years this track has been remixed and sampled in many different musical genres. Yet The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” will always remain the favorite among critics and fans. Because The Animals truly captured the essence of this song – the dark and haunting melody manifesting the regrets of a life gone wrong.
Listen to “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals
The Animals “The House of the Rising Sun” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
“The House of the Rising Sun” is a classic cautionary tale narrated in song. The original tune had apparently come from the American miners in the early 1900s – and the Rising Sun was a typical name given to English bawdy houses. The song had been sung from both the perspective of a man and a woman, and The Animals had chosen a rendition with a male narrator. “The House of the Rising Sun” talks of an inexperienced young man losing himself in the vices of a house of ill-repute.
“There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun”
This is an opening line for all ages; earworming itself into anyone who listens to the song and staying there for a while. “The House of the Rising Sun” is narrated in the first person and Burdon does justice to these simple lyrics with his soulful rendition – his voice perfectly embodying the tale told by a tortured young man.
The opening immediately transports the listener back in time. These lines convey that sense of “once upon a time” and the listener immediately gets into that mindset where they’re expecting a story told well. Then we can easily imagine a shady establishment somewhere in New Orleans, filled with prostitutes and men gambling away their life’s savings. We get to hear of a youth coming across this house and deciding to experience the pleasures of the world. However, it is easy for the young and the poor to be easily corrupted by the glittering promises. Burdon voices the thoughts of a poor boy whose life has been ruined by the vices of this house – whether it be falling for prostitutes, drinking, or gambling. The track cautions the listener against excess.
“My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans”
This verse starts off by narrating the poor boy’s origins. A seamstress mother and a gambling father probably meant that he himself grew up poor. He might have grown up seeing his father gamble away whatever his mother earned. So it is a little surprising that he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Certainly, he must have been tempted at the Rising Sun. It shows how this place was a danger to unsuspecting young men like him. We see how this poor boy falls victim to the same lifestyle his father led.
“Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk”
This verse shows the dire straits the young man is in. The reference to a suitcase and trunk implies a person that keeps going and coming. It does not bode well for a young man of modest means to frequent an establishment like the Rising Sun. We get to know that he is a gambler, and one addicted to the constant thrill of the game. So he keeps gambling away, trying to fill a gaping hole of emptiness or need at his core. And the severity of his addiction is subtly mentioned as well. The lyrics mention that this poor boy is only satisfied when he is drunk. So it appears that his habit of gambling can only be cured by another vice.
It is truly impressive how this track grasps and expresses the idea of desperation and depravity that is associated with gambling so well. Even if times have changed, we get to hear and see plenty of stories on the news that speak of similar scenarios. Young men fall victim to either alcohol, drugs, or gambling and end up ruining their lives, careers, and futures.
“Oh, mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done”
The midway transition is a memorable one, The Animals keyboardist Alan Price adding his brilliant organ solo to the mix. Then comes the third verse, carrying a bit of advice like any good story. The young man begs mothers to tell their children his story as a cautionary tale. So that their children will know not to fall into the sins and pleasures so freely offered in houses like the Rising Sun. This young man expresses his own sorrows and regrets and this is perhaps his way of redemption. To ensure that others don’t go down the same path that he did.
“I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain”
Yet it’s a bit too late for this poor boy himself. He realizes that he cannot be saved. He had fallen too far into the vices offered at the Rising Sun. So much so that he leads a sort of an in-between existence. One foot on the train and the other on the platform implies that his life is now defined by the times that he visits the Rising Sun and the times when he doesn’t. His entire life revolves around gambling, which he likens to being a prisoner wearing a ball and a chain. So he keeps repeating this pattern and is unable to get himself to stop, falling deeper and deeper each time.
“The House of the Rising Sun” draws to a close with a repetition of the chorus and the track fades out with the poor boy acknowledging that this place brought him to his ruin. There is no redemption for the poor boy himself, yet there is a glimpse of hope for certain. He is aware of his own situation, he doesn’t want other young men to be victims, and perhaps one day he might give up his vices and never return to the Rising Sun.
Burdon’s gritty voice is the perfect accompaniment to this sorrowful narrative. It spoke to the audience at the time and continues to do so at the present. One reason why this song did not lose its appeal may be because it doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. Sometimes there is no absolution from sin, there’s no way to save someone from addiction. It brings out the darkness of human nature – how easily and willingly we will give into vices – the tale of the poor boy that will be relevant as the years continue to pass.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.