"House of the Rising Sun" is probably most famous for the cover version recorded by the Animals (purchase/download) in 1964. Indeed, the band scored a number one hit with the song in the US and the UK (and elsewhere in Europe), but it was hardly the definitive performance.
First recorded by Clarence Ashley in 1934 (download his version), "House of the Rising Sun" is a folk song so old, musicologists aren't exactly sure of where it came from or who wrote it. Of course, this is not unusual in the case of traditional folk songs. Often, like with this one, folk songs have origins even further back in English folk tradition. "House of the Rising Sun" is believed to have been an old English melody which was adapted to American circumstances and the city of New Orleans after having spent some time in the US.
Though the song surely was firmly planted in American folk tradition before it found its way onto a recording (Ashley claimed to have learned it from his grandfather), the recordings of it are the best chronicle we have of how it traveled and evolved.
By the time it became a staple in the acts who were considered central to the mid-20th-Century Greenwich Village folk music "revival," it had been recorded not only by Ashley, but also by the Almanac Singers, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. Dave Van Ronk was an early adapter of the song on the Greenwich Village scene, and the tune was eventually recorded by Joan Baez among others.
"HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN" LYRICS
"House of the Rising Sun" is a song about a brothel and some nefarious activities which took place there - perhaps a murder or some other suspicious activity. It tells the story of a working class person (it's unclear whether the song is from the point of view of one of the prostitutes, or that of a john who frequented the place).
The middle verses hint at the former, stating:
My mother was a tailor
She sewed these new blue jeans
My sweetheart was a gambler, lord
down in New Orleans
Now the only thing a gambler needs
is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time he's satisfied
is when he's on the drunk.
A later verse hints at the notion that perhaps this prostituted murdered her john:
Oh tell my baby sister
Not to do as I have done
But shun the house in New Orleans
they call the rising sun
The fact that the story of the song is so vague and broad-scoped has allowed it to be interpreted any number of ways, and sung by any number of people seeking out an opportunity to confess their sins, so to speak. More than anything else, it's a song about shame, exploring the dark and shadowy depths of the human soul.
WHERE IS THE ACTUAL "HOUSE"?
As with any song which names a specific place in a specific city, there has been much speculation as to if and where the actual House of the Rising Sun might be located in New Orleans. Since the song is believed to have its origins in English folklore, it's unlikely that it's about an actual place which resides in the Crescent City. Still, plenty of historians and music fanatics have taken a stab at locating the original place which "inspired" the song.
It turns out there are two locations in the city of New Orleans which could have had some version of "Rising Sun" in the name of the establishment. One was a hotel in the French Quarter and the other a Social Aid & Pleasure Club (sort of like a community center, rented out for dances and events). Neither place is indicated as a place where prostitutes and/or gamblers may have socialized, although a quick study of the history of New Orleans points to the fact that gamblers and prostitutes have always been a prominent part of the population, particularly around the time of the city's founding. So, it remains unclear as to whether there is, or ever was, an actual House of the Rising Sun. More likely, it's a metaphor or an allusion to something else altogether.