I always have to stop myself when I say I like “all kinds of music”. Because, honestly, that just isn’t true, there is really only one kind of music I like. No, not [just] Black Metal, I’m talking about music in a minor key. I mean, I’m a pretty happy guy, but there is something about sad, sad songs that just does it for me. I don’t dislike Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Fall”, but I far prefer “Summer” and “Winter” (guess which seasons he writes in a minor key). “Satisfaction” is a fine song, but I’d rather listen to “Paint it Black” any day…you get the idea. Basically, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sting [of soul crushing sorrow and sadness]
This month on Minor Key Monday I make the tough choice of picking which version of “House of the Rising Sun” I like best:
As you can guess by the title of this post, I’ve decided the Bob Dylan version of “House of the Rising Sun” is the best of all versions of the song (that I have heard so far). It’s got a nice simple progression of scattered minor key chords that had come to characterize all 1960s versions of the song. But what really sets it apart from the rest is the vocals. I’ll admit, The Animals version of the song is pretty spectacular with some intense rock energy and powerful vocals:
But, say what you will about his stylized singing, Bob Dylan’s vocal delivery is second to none. I think Eric Burden’s vocals on the Animals version are great, but compared to Dylan’s delivery, they sound like they were sung by Wesley Willis!
No one really knows who first wrote “House of the Rising Sun” (also known as “The Risin’ Sun Blues” in some of its earlier versions), but the earliest recorded version is this one by Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster from 1933:
As you can hear, the vocal delivery is basically the same, but the backing guitar is quite different (that opening minor guitar chord arpeggio is sorely missed!) and not nearly as mournful as the versions from Bob Dylan and The Animals. Though, it bears mentioning that these more modern arrangements of the song were neither created by Bob Dylan nor The Animals. The credit probably goes to folk singer Dave Van Ronk who Dylan has credited with teaching him the song. As Van Ronk said (quoted directly from Wikipedia’s direct quote from Van Ronk):
I had learned it sometime in the 1950s, from a recording by Hally Wood, the Texas singer and collector, who had got it from an Alan Lomax field recording by a Kentucky woman named Georgia Turner. I put a different spin on it by altering the chords and using a bass line that descended in half steps—a common enough progression in jazz, but unusual among folksingers. By the early 1960s, the song had become one of my signature pieces, and I could hardly get off the stage without doing it.
Van Ronk’s version is pretty interesting:
However, his eccentric delivery just doesn’t seem nearly as powerful as Dylan’s own eccentric delivery. It also lacks the bombastic energy of the Animal’s version. Still, one of the things I love about the song is the backing chords of the more modern versions, and for that I have Van Ronk to thank! As for the brilliant vocals, no one knows who first wrote them, but it hardly matters when you think about all the great versions of the song that have spread through the music world over the last century!