Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #70: House of the Rising Sun

We’re back, baby! After a near two-month vacation, the Bob Dylan Rankings have returned…with a vengeance! And we’re making some changes. It’s nothing drastic, but after much consultation with the Bob Dylan Brain Trust, I’ve decided that proceeding through Bob Dylan’s catalog with no real rhyme or reason, as I’ve been doing thus far, is not ideal. So we’re going to impose some order on this madness, and go forward in a vaguely chronological fashion. The Top Ten will still be withheld until the end, and I reserve the right to switch the order up for any reason I deem fit, but, for the most part, we will go through Dylan’s oeuvre album by album, starting with Bob Dylan and moving through Nashville Skyline (the songs from The Basement Tapes will be dated based on when they were recorded, that is, between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, since they weren’t released until after my arbitrary cut-off).

First, a confession: for a long time, I was under the impression that Bob Dylan actually wrote “House of the Rising Sun.” Forgive me for my ignorance, but I can defend myself. After all, the grim darkness of the chords, the loneliness and desperation of the lyrics, and the vivid portrait of the protagonist that emerges from the song are all things that Dylan would eventually master and come to be recognized for. And whether or not it was Dylan who put his own trademark on this song or the song that put its trademark on Dylan, “House of the Rising Sun” was a perfect choice for his first album.

The song allegedly goes back as far as the 18th century. Alan Price of The Animals claims it goes back even further, originating in 16th-century England and only being adapted to New Orleans when immigrants brought it over. This seems specious, if only because New Orleans is so integral to the song, as a symbol of spiritual decay and moral turpitude.

It’s worth noting that Dylan chose to sing the song from the perspective of a female in the brothel and not a male patron as so many other versions do. Most of Dylan’s songs come from the male perspective, and he often gets criticized for reducing females in his songs to idealistic mother figures or romantic saviors. In “Rising Sun,” though, Dylan embodies a female character who is caught up in—and unable to escape—the “ball and chain” of life in a New Orleans whorehouse. (Perhaps, though, this should have been a clue to me that Dylan hadn’t written this one himself.)

I’ve already used this series to defend Dylan’s much-maligned voice, and I think this song is a great illustration of what that voice can do. Against the sound of the lone guitar, Dylan’s voice enters gently. The sparse sound of the instrumentation allows every detail of the voice to come through, and every strain, flaw, rise, fall, and long-held note mirrors the depressing, longing tone of the song.

Dylan’s voice is also perfectly paced for the song. As our heroine tells us her history, his voice is quiet and resigned. Once she gets to the moral warning—“Tell my baby sister/Not to do what I have done”—his voice gets stretches out and goes up a few decibels; saving her sister is still important, even though her hope is gone. As the song concludes, along with the life of the narrator who insists, “I’m going back to end my life/Down in the Rising Sun,” Dylan’s voice becomes more scratchy and strained. He sounds angrier and sickly. By the time the song concludes, with a repeat of the opening line, Dylan’s voice shakes with resentment and self-loathing. It’s a brilliant example of how expressive Dylan can be even when embodying someone else.

If the song is such a showcase for Dylan’s vocal talent, then why is it all the way down at #70? Well, it’s partially due to the fact that Dylan’s catalog is so great, but there are two main strikes against the song. The first is that Dylan did not, in fact, write it, and so he can only get so much credit for invoking the narrator’s voice. The second, bigger issue, though, is that Dylan’s version of the song is not the best or most memorable version of “Rising Sun”—that honor goes, of course, to the classic folk-rock version recorded by The Animals. I’d love to able to say that Dylan’s version was the definitive version of the song, and I do think his voice suits it better than Eric Burdon’s, but I can’t. Every time I listen to Bob Dylan’s version, a part of me always thinks, “Where’s the fucking organ?”

So while “House of the Rising Sun” is a great song for Dylan, it’s not a great Dylan song. And for that, it remains at #70.

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