Recently I read that Dave Von Ronk was given credit for the definitive version of the song, which Dylan swiped from him before he had a chance to record it. Then came the Animals classic version in 1964, which Alan Price claimed was from a 16th century English folk song about a Soho brothel,but in the song the band specifically referenced New Orleans. You have to figure Alan heard Dylan sing it, as it was on his 1962 debut album.
As it turns out, the song does have deep roots but is generally perceived to be an American folk song first recorded by an Appalachian duo in 1934, and soon after by Alan Lomax in 1937, also in the Appalachian region. Both refer to a house in New Orleans. It was known as The Rising Sun Blues. Along the way, Woodie Guthrie, Josh White, Leadbelly and Pete Seeger all covered the song. Even Andy Griffith sampled it in 1959. Von Ronk says it was the Lomax recording that inspired him, but you figure he heard these other versions too. I have to say I like the Josh White version the best.
Ted Anthony charts the long journey in Chasing the Rising Sun, illustrating how a folk song like this drifts through time and becomes part of the great American folk treasury and in turn adopted abroad. Gregory Issacs did a Reggae version of the song in 1992.
One of my favorite versions is The Blind Boys of Alabama using the music behind the lyrics of Amazing Grace, turning it into a spiritual. Most see the House of the Rising Son as referring to a brothel, but I suppose you can find salvation in the lowliest of places.
There may or may not have been a brothel like that described in the song. I haven't read Anthony's book to find out. It doesn't really matter. It is one of those songs that evokes so many images, like those of E.J. Bellocq.
Share your favorite versions!