Other people’s songs: House of the Rising Sun (and the littlest birds)

By Aaron Galbraith (in the USA) and Tony Attwood (in the UK).  As ever, Aaron selects the songs and adds his comments, and Tony on the other side of the ocean replies.  In this series we are listening to songs that Dylan has recorded but not written, and seeing where it all leads.  Today it is “House of the Rising Sun”.  A list of the 44 previous episodes is at the end, and there is more about Untold Dylan on our home page, and our Facebook site.


Aaron: The earliest recorded version of this traditional folk song, of uncertain authorship,  was by Tom Clarence Ashley & Gwen Foster in 1933

Tony: Oh this is why I love this series – I’ve never heard this before and had no idea that the original had this bouncy approach, plus a melody and chord sequence that was in many parts so different from the one we know today.  And although my knowledge of music of the 1930s is patchy I do think the chords used here are quite unusual for this time – a mix of popular song chords and blues I think.  That is a really fascinating recording.

Aaron:  Dylan learned the song from the singing of Dave Van Ronk: “I’d always known ‘Risin’ Sun’ but never really knew I knew it until I heard Dave sing it.”

Tony: Aaron, I know that you do the selection of the music for this series, so my apologies here, but I really do want to slip in the Dave Van Ronk version here, because in my experience a lot of people I’ve talked to about this era of music have never heard it.   Thanks to the Smithsonian we have a recording.  Prepared to be amazed.

Tony: It really is a very unusual approach to this sort of music.   And of course it is a long way from the original version above.  But, there’s a problem… for what this track uses is the chord sequence that Bob used – a chord sequence that is quite a long way from that used in 1933.

But, this version by van Ronk appeared in August 1964 and the first Dylan album came out in March 1962, so I think we have to take it that Bob listened to van Ronk perform the song in a folk club, and took the approach with the chords, but straightened out the melody.  Unless it was Bob who created the chord sequence, and van Ronk copied it, and then added his hesitant vocal approach for his album two years later.   I think the former is more likely, but if anyone has the definitive answer perhaps they can resolve it for me.  I’m just trying to put it together, not suggesting that I know.

Aaron: The most famous and successful version appeared in 1964 by The Animals. Alan Price famously got arrangement credits for this, simply because there was insufficient room to name all five band members on the record label, and Alan Price’s first name was first alphabetically. As a result, a lot of later versions that are covers of the Animals version credit him as well. In America it became the first British Invasion number one unconnected with the Beatles.

Tony: Now I can add something personal.  As a very young musician (a pretentious schoolboy in fact) I played organ in a band that certainly never got within a billion miles of the big time, but we did once play as second warm up band to the Animals (I suspect we were probably booked by mistake).

I know my father was completely unsure whether to be annoyed at me not staying in to do my homework, or proud that I was getting some work as a musician – as he had done in his youth playing sax in a touring dance band (I have two photographs of that band in pride of place in my sitting room).   Anyway, back with me and the Animals, no one noticed the warm-up band of course, but it’s a nice memory for me.

And of course that broken chord sequence has itself become famous.

Aaron: This song has been covered by everyone from Dolly Parton, Jerry Garcia and Russell Watson to many many others. Here is one final version I discovered, that I particularly like.  It is by The Be Good Tanyas

Tony: Wow what an episode this is for me (sorry if I am boring everyone else).  The Be Good Tanyas were and are, in my view utterly superb, so I am going to slip another one of theirs in.  With “Rising Sun” they have taken a piece that we all know so well, and has clearly been performed in so many ways, but given it a totally different treatment.   The lightness of their musical approach takes nothing away from the lyrics because of the brilliant vocals.  Do listen to it all the way through.

And so I can’t resist ending this ramble of mine with another of their recordings.   Just listen to what they do with the rhythms in “Littlest Birds”.

Aaron, I had a rotten night out last night at a club that didn’t seem to realise that dance music is supposed to have some swing in it.  I really don’t understand young people these days!!!  But this morning you have given me a real lift, remembering old times and having a chance to put the Be Good Tanays on this site.  I’m out at another dance club tonight, this time with my favourite dance partner.  You’ve set me up for the day, and evening.




  1. Strange that Tony seems to be unclear as to where the arrangement for the Dylan and Van Ronk versions came from, as Van Ronk has verly clearly stated that Dylan nicked his arrangment and recorded it first, particularly in the “No Direction Home” documentary.
    “One evening in 1962, I was sitting at my usual table in the back of the Kettle of Fish, and Dylan came slouching in. He had been up at the Columbia studios with John Hammond, doing his first album. He was being very mysterioso about the whole thing, and nobody I knew had been to any of the sessions except Suze, his lady. I pumped him for information, but he was vague. Everything was going fine and, “Hey, would it be okay for me to record your arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun?'” Oh, shit. “Jeez, Bobby, I’m going into the studio to do that myself in a few weeks. Can’t it wait until your next album?” A long pause. “Uh-oh”. I did not like the sound of that. “What exactly do you mean, ‘Uh-oh’?” “Well”, he said sheepishly, “I’ve already recorded it.”

  2. I don’t think its strange at all that I was unclear; I can’t remember or indeed recognise everything. I thought I did quite well unravelling the way Bob got to the arrangement of Not Dark Yet, which others didn’t seem to pick up (https://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/24894) so surely I’m allowed not to remember something said in “No Direction Home”.
    It’s not knowing the facts that is important, it’s the use one makes of them.

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