House of the Rising Sun

Although this tune was popularized by Eric Burdon and the Animals in the 1960's — here's clip to refresh your memory —it is a folk ballad the roots of which go back far enough to insure that musicolgists will be debating it for years to come. Most agree that the "House of the Rising Sun" was a brothel, but the consensus on even that point is shakey, with some claiming that it refers to a prison on a hill.

Recordings of the song go back at least to the early 1930's, when Clarence Ashley (who did a recording of it with Doc Watson years later) recorded it with Gwen Foster. Roy Acuff also recorded it in the '30's. Here's a clip of another recording of the song Acuff made years later.

Audio Clip: Roy Acuff playing The House of the Rising Sun


Since that time the song has been recorded by dozens of artists and performed by countless others. There are many different versions and everyone seems to enjoy giving it a distinctive twist. Pete Seeger (shown below with the Almanac Singers, who recorded the song in the 1940's) recorded a spare, solo version of House, accompanying himself on banjo.

Audio clip: Pete Seeger on House of the Rising Sun

Eric Burdon once revealed that the Animals heard Josh White perform the song in Europe and decided to cover it, so have a listen to White's version as well.

Audio clip: Josh White on House of the Rising Sun


Dave Van Ronk is generally credited with providing the chord progression that is often used today. Apparently he shared his arrangement with a young Bob Dylan who included it (without permission, the story goes) on his first album. Here's a clip from that recording. Notice the descending bass line. Although our arrangement doesn't include this touch, you could easily add it yourself.

Audio Clip: Bob Dylan on House, from his first album

Finally, here's a clip from a classy acoustic version done by David Grisman, Jerry Garcia and Tony Rice from their Pizza Tapes CD. They play it in Dm...a nice little exercise in transposition that you might want to tackle in case you get a call from Grisman or Rice and they want you to sit in on their next session. Listen closely for TR's lovely chord voicings.

Audio Clip: Dawg, Garcia and Rice on House, from The Pizza Tapes