Bob Dylan: House of the Risin‘ Sun
The folk process can be a messy business. The identity of a song’s author usual gets lost. Lyrics change, sometimes obliterating the original meaning of the song. Slang expressions that were understood in the song’s earliest days become obscure lyrical mysteries, leading to misunderstandings of the song’s meaning. People steal arrangements of a song from each other. Someone manages to copyright a version of a song which had long been public domain. Sometimes, in the history of a song, a set of lyrics from a completely different song get mixed in. So mixing in a little gender confusion is just one more thing.
The above may seem like a very long list. And surely, you would never find all of that applying to a single song, would you? You would if the song is House of the Rising Sun.
There are two distinct lyrical threads found in versions of House of the Rising Sun. The male version is the story of a gambler who has reached the end of his luck; he must now return to New Orleans to face the debts he incurred at the House of the Rising Sun, apparently a gambling house. But, in the female version, The House is clearly a brothel; the protagonist must return there and live out the rest of her days as a prostitute. There are versions of the female lyric which use strong language and explicit descriptions to eliminate any doubt as to the subject of the song. The “cleaned up” versions of the song were created by artists who wanted to maximize the popularity of their versions.
Dave van Ronk, during the first flowering of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early sixties, learned House of the Risin’ Sun from a folk singer named Halley Wood. In that scene, all of the musicians knew each other, and often caught each other’s performances. So when Van Ronk performed his original arrangement of the song, it was heard by among others, a young Bob Dylan. The story continues, thus:
“Dave had recently begun playing his new setting for House of the Risin’ Sun at the time young Bob Dylan was recording his first album. One night Bob asked Dave if it would be OK to record the song using the new arrangement, and Dave said, please don't, I plan to record it myself. Bob said, Ooops, too late, I sang it in the studio earlier today.
Dave soon had to quit playing the song because the Greenwich Village audiences regularly commented, ‘Oh, you're playing that Bob Dylan song!’ “
The final irony was that Dylan soon had to stop performing it himself, because of comments that he was playing “that Animals” song. They, of course, learned the song from Dylan’s recording. And one of the members of the Animals turned around and copyrighted the band’s arrangement.
Dylan’s version uses a hybrid of the male and female lyrics. He sings from the woman’s point of view, and she tells the tale of the gambler who led her astray. One of the last verses rhymes a line about having “one foot on the platform, and one foot on the train”, with a later line about a “ball and chain”. Many people have sung these lines, saying that the add to the mystery of the song; in fact, both of these phrases as used here are apparently old slang terms for getting pregnant!
The earliest known versions of House of the Rising Sun, (also known under the title Rising Sun Blues) date from the early 1930s. These are the female lyrics, with no reference to a gambler; his story comes from a song from around the same time, called Bounder’s Luck.
My source for the research for this post, as well as the quote above, was The Mudcat Cafe. This is an excellent resource for folk song research, with more information than you could ever want. The distillation of this research, as well as any mistakes, are my own.