Willie O Winsbury is Child Ballad 100 (Roud 64). The song, which has numerous variants, is a traditional Scottish ballad that dates from at least 1775, and is known under several other names, including “Johnnie Barbour” and “Lord Thomas of Winesberry”.
The legendary blues song “The House of the Rising Sun” is one of those tunes with a murky origin story. Who wrote it? Was there a single person to do so? It’s unclear.
The traditional folk song is about a person whose life has gone down the drain thanks to a location in New Orleans, Louisiana. To date, there are many renditions of the song, from Bob Dylan to Dolly Parton and Dave Van Ronk.
The most famous version of the track was recorded in 1964 by the British rock band, The Animals. That version hit No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart, as well as in the U.S. and Canada. It has since been called the “first folk rock hit.”
Early Versions and Alan Lomax
The song originally appeared in Appalachia, in the Northeast part of the United States. But it likely has roots in traditional English folk songs, experts say. Though the exact authorship is unknown today.
Music scholars have noted that it bears resemblance to the 16th-century song “The Unfortunate Rake,” but whether these songs are siblings, so to speak, is unknown.
Legendary folk song expert Alan Lomax has noted that the melody may be related to the 17th-century folk song “Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave.” Again, though, there is no clear throughline between the two. Lomax has also said that “Rising Sun” was the name of a bawdy house, or whore house, in two other traditional English songs. It was also the name of an English pub.
In 1953, Lomax met English musician and farm worker Harry Cox, known for his wealth of folk song history, who said that there was a song called “She was a Rum One,” that had two possible opening lines. One is, If you go to Lowestoft, and ask for The Rising Sun, There you’ll find two old whores and my old woman is one. The recording Lomax and Harry Cox made is still available (here). Though, many believe Cox’s “She Was A Rum One” is not connected to “Rising Sun.”
Even Earlier Versions
Some scholars believe the song goes back to the turn of the 20th century in America, with the oldest published version of its lyrics credited to Robert Winslow Gordon in 1925. The lyrics ran in a column in Adventure magazine, titled “Old Songs That Men Have Sung.” Those lyrics go:
There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many poor girl
Great God, and I for one.
The oldest known recording is by Appalachian artists Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster who cut a version in September of 1933. Ashley said he’d learned it from his grandfather, Enoch, who was married around the time of the Civil War. In Ashley’s version, which switches narrators between a man and a woman, the lyrics go:
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
Where many poor boys to destruction has gone
And me, oh God, are one.
Another early version was recorded by controversial American artist Leadbelly.
A bit later in 1937, Lomax recorded folks performing the song, including the 16-year-old daughter of a local miner, Georgia Turner. That song was recorded under the title “The Rising Sun Blues.”
Other songs exist with similar titles but are unrelated, including “Rising Sun Blues” by Ivy Smith in 1927.
American Songwriter previously wrote about the 1961 arrangement of the song by New York City folk artist Dave Van Ronk, here. That arrangement was later appropriated by Bob Dylan, causing some friction between the musical friends. Dolly Parton recorded her version in 1980.
Possible Rising Sun Locales
There are various places in Crescent City that have become possible locales for the subject of the song. Each has varying plausibility. While “House of the Rising Sun” often implies a brothel, many don’t know if the song points to a real place or a fictitious one.
Some think it could be a jailhouse, the place where a woman goes after she killed her alcoholic abusive father. Or it could be the place where prostitutes were detained.
According to old city directories of New Orleans, one short-lived hotel on Conti Street in the French Quarter in the 1820s was called Rising Sun. But it burned down in 1822. In the late 19th century, there was also Rising Sun Hall on what is now Cherokee Street. Also, in the 1860s, a place called The Rising Sun was advertised in local papers on what is now the lake side of the 100 block of Decatur Street. That place boasted a restaurant, a larger beer salon, and a coffee house.
Van Ronk, himself, wrote in his biography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, that he was in New Orleans when someone showed him some old photos from the city. And among them “was a picture of a foreboding stone doorway with a carving on the lintel of a stylized rising sun … It was the Orleans Parish women’s prison.”
Furthermore, Bizarre New Orleans, a guidebook on New Orleans, says that the real house was at 1614 Esplanade Avenue between 1862 and 1874. It was said to have been named after its madam, Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose name means “the rising sun” in French.
Guidebook, Offbeat New Orleans, asserts that the real House of the Rising Sun was at 826–830 St. Louis St. between 1862 and 1874, also purportedly named for Marianne LeSoleil Levant. The building still stands, and Eric Burdon, a British singer for The Animals and War, said after visiting at the behest of the owner, “The house was talking to me.”
Not everyone believes that the house actually existed. Pamela D. Arceneaux, a research librarian at the Williams Research Center in New Orleans, once said, “I have made a study of the history of prostitution in New Orleans and have often confronted the perennial question, ‘Where is the House of the Rising Sun?’ without finding a satisfactory answer.
“Although it is generally assumed that the singer is referring to a brothel, there is actually nothing in the lyrics that indicates that the ‘house’ is a brothel. Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics.”