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Milestones In Rock ‘n’ Roll History: House Of The Rising Sun

In the second of our new series of feature articles on Milestones in Rock ‘n’ Roll History, former Guildford journalist Dave Reading relates the background to a song that was decisive in the evolution of Bob Dylan.

There’s a story about Bob Dylan that has passed into rock ’n’ roll legend. He was driving along the highway sometime in 1964 when a song played by a new British band came on the radio. Up until then, Dylan was the folk singer from Greenwich Village. But then he heard the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun and everything changed.

Record sleeve of the Animals’ version of House Of The Rising Sun.

The story goes that he was so knocked out by the track that he pulled over, got out of the car and banged on the bonnet in his excitement. He recalled later that the song caused a switch in his musical perspective. Suddenly he knew how an electric band could work for him.

Fresh new sounds were coming to America from across the Atlantic. Dylan became energised by the work of the Animals, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Zombies – bands who eclipsed the tame pop sounds that were diluting youth music in his own country. The result was his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, in which he drew from a whole concoction of creative musical influences. And controversially, he used an electric backing band for the first time.

Bob Dylan’s album Bringing It All Back Home.

Dylan was no expert on the electric guitar and didn’t know how to control its tones and volume. But everything happened spontaneously and the album was recorded in three days. When the production team heard the finished result there was elation and although the folk purists were horrified, the album created a new path for many rock bands of that time.

The song that started it all, the one that mesmerised him out there on the highway, has a fascinating history. To follow the thread, you have to close your eyes and go back in time on a fanciful journey. One place and time to start might be England in the 1500s. In the taverns and on the village greens, balladeers are singing a song about a poor lost girl whose life has gone badly wrong. It is the lament of a young woman forced into a life of prostitution. In the ancient tradition of folk music, the song is passed on by word of mouth, undergoing changes as it makes its journey down the years. Eventually it finds itself transported across the Atlantic by settlers starting life in the New World.

We hear about House of the Rising Sun in the writings of the folk song collector Alan Lomax. “A ragged Kentucky mountain girl recorded this modern southern white song for me in 1937 in Middlesboro, Kentucky, the hardboiled town in the Cumberland Gap on the Tennessee border,” he wrote. “The blues song of a lost girl probably derives from some older British piece. At any rate, The House of the Rising Sun occurs in several risqué English songs, and the melody is one of several for the ancient and scandalous balladeLittle Musgrave.”

This ragged mountain girl was a poor miner’s daughter called Georgia Turner. At that time Lomax was making recordings of popular folk songs sung by ordinary people in their natural environments for the U.S. Library of Congress. When his travels brought him to the home of young Georgia, she was 16 years old. Lomax switched on his cumbersome recording machine and she sang her favourite song unaccompanied, an old bluesy folk number about living a life of sin. She called it Rising Sun Blues.

Cover of Bob Dylan’s first album that featured his version of House Of The Rising Sun.

About 25 years later Dylan heard the song performed by the folk and blues singer Dave Van Ronk and recorded it on his first album, called simply Bob Dylan. That’s the one with the picture of Dylan on the front cover wearing a distinctive sheepskin jacket and corduroy cap.

Go forward two years and we have the Animals looking for a distinctive number to finish their set during live appearances. Although they know it’s customary to end on a fast-paced rocker, they want to do something different. At some point they have become aware of House of the Rising Sun.

The Animals’ front man, Eric Burdon, had first heard the song in a jazz club in his home town of Newcastle upon Tyne, sung by the Northumbrian singer Johnny Handle. He was enthralled by this blues in a minor key but later when he heard Dylan’s version, this made the structure clearer. That was the version the Animals used as a starting point.

Poster for Guildford’s Ricky Tick club featuring the Animals one week followed by Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds the next! The year was actually 1964.

Guitarist Hilton Valentine took the same chord sequence but he played an arpeggio – the musical technique where notes in a chord are played in sequence rather than simultaneously. This astonishing version, which owes its success, as much as anything, to Valentine’s guitar part, was a No.1 hit single in Britain and the USA. It was the first folk rock record.

When Dylan was inspired to record Bringing It All Back Home, the result was something quite different to what rock lovers were accustomed to hearing. The album created a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll and a new kind of lyrical playfulness that could be heard in rock music for years to come. Just as the Animals had been Dylan’s own inspiration, the album motivated a host of British bands including the Kinks, the Hollies, the Rolling Stones – and most significantly the Beatles.

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2 Responses to Milestones In Rock ‘n’ Roll History: House Of The Rising Sun

  1. Colin Cross Reply

    April 17, 2018 at 12:56 am

    Thanks for the memories – Dylan, the Animals and the early sixties, amazing time!

    I lived in Fulham and was out every night of the week for the whole decade.

    I saw the Animals at the Hammersmith Odeon the week they released the single in June 1964 and they blew me away.

    I also saw Dylan around then at the Albert Hall with Nina Simone as his support.

    What times they were. We’d go to a Putney cloud to see the Stones for 10p, really!

    The Who, the Kinks, etc, etc – it was all kicking off.

    Definitely never to be repeated.

  2. Jules Cranwell Reply

    April 17, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    I saw the Who first in 1964, in a cowboy village in a park in Brussels, where they were unkown, and had an audience of around 20, including me and two brothers.

    Townshend still obliged by destroying Moonie’s drums with his spare axe.

    As you say, such brilliant times.

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