Skip to content

Music meme 1: A song for making friends: The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”

September 20, 2015

I’ve reached the point now with guitar where I can do things with reasonable speed. I can sightread most songs. I’m gradually adding new chords and chord voicings to my repertoire. And so I’m trying again to work on singing and playing in different rhythms at the same time, something that still doesn’t come easily to me.

One of my techniques for practicing has been to take a song that is basically a simple chord progression and arpeggiate it. That is, instead of playing the chords in one big chunk of a bunch of notes all at the same time, I string the notes out melodically. One of the best examples of arpeggiation I can think of is “House of the Rising Sun” as performed by The Animals

The song is a folk ballad and has been recorded by dozens over the years. The earliest known recording dates back to the 1930s. Ethnomusicologist/folklorist Alan Lomax collected a version shortly thereafter, which helped get the tune out in front of a bigger audience. But The Animals version is the one that most of us have heard, along with the slightly earlier version by Bob Dylan, from which they took an inspiration. Their chord progressions are similar to Dylan’s, but Dylan doesn’t arpeggiate. (Listen to Dylan’s version here).

Songs that are arpeggiated like the Animals’ version aren’t always that interesting to play. They feel a bit étude-like, and are good for you like an étude — playing them forces you to be really methodical about rhythm. Good for woodshedding. But I’ve always liked this chord progression, mainly because it does that simple trick that a song can do to get me to like it — it plays with your expectations of major and minor chords. The melody is resolutely minor, the darkest despair of a tune. But most of the chords that accompany it in the Animals’ version are major. Only the tonic chord (the chord that defines the key the piece is in on which phrases begin and end) is minor. That tension between what the melody leads you to expect and what you actually hear is what makes this piece interesting and what can sustain it through a bazillion verses (only a fraction of which are presented here). Arpeggiating the chords also gives the tune motion, a sense of moving along even as the rhythm and chords relentlessly repeat, so it feels both stuck (as is its narrator) and also energetic.

“House of the Rising Sun” is one of the songs on the set list for next Sunday night, when I join my friend’s band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival. I’m probably not playing on it — I literally play second fiddle and not every song needs a second fiddle. But I played mandolin on it last time I gigged with them — a shimmery, jangly, arrangement with more than a touch of urban anxiety–and thought I’d like to try my hand at the guitar part just for fun.

This afternoon I was on a roll. I played through the whole thing twice at tempo, worked on it for a good half an hour. And then I grabbed my bag and went out to run some errands.

First stop was the music shop. This is one of my favorite local stores. It mostly sells records and CDs, but they also have a small selection of strings, picks, cables, rosin, and other music-making paraphernalia, just enough to get me through when I didn’t manage to place an order with the string shop soon enough. A guy was standing at the counter chatting with the owner but stepped aside so I could approach. “Can I get a couple of sets of electric guitar strings? One light, one medium gauge, please.” He pulled a couple of d’Addario’s off the rack and handed them to me.
Do you carry Gibson picks, by any chance?” “No, but I’ve got Dunlop.” I weighed my options. Dunlop are pretty good, but I’ve gotten really attached to my Gibson picks. They just sound better. “No thanks. We’re picky in our house.” I hadn’t meant to crack the lame joke, but grinned anyway. “No pun intended.” The owner kindly fought an eyeroll as he handed me my change. “Enjoy your day.” “Thanks, you too.”

“House of the Rising Sun” is a good song to have in your head if you’re taking a leisurely stroll through your neighborhood on a beautiful sunny day, taking a good look around. I felt the bassline in my feet.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

Next stop was another one of my favorite neighborhood stores. It’s a clothing shop/sewing workshop about a mile from my apartment with a hot pink door and a black and white striped awning. They teach sewing lessons and sell clothes handmade out of vintage or vintage-inspired fabrics, along with manufactured clothes that fit a similar aesthetic. It’s one of the few places I actually enjoy shopping for clothes, and even if I don’t find anything, it’s always fun to see what they have. About 30 seconds after I walk in the door, I hear The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” come on over the store’s stereo system. I looked up, because it felt like some kind of joke. About the same time, a guy shopping with a friend for their wives turned to the friend and said, “that’s so funny, I was just listening to this.” He showed his friend his phone as evidence. I turned to them and said, “I thought it was funny too, because I was just playing this on guitar about 10 minutes ago.” We had a brief Animals vs. Dylan conversation with a sprinkling of Alan Lomax and then we went our separate ways, they to the cash register, me into a fitting room.

When I came out, they were gone, but another guy had come in, although I didn’t notice him at first. I always think it is especially brave of guys to come into this shop. It is so very pink. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in there. I went to the counter to pay and was chatting with the clerk who asked about our conversation about the song. She thought the coincidence was funny too. “You play guitar, are you in a band?” I explained about my friend’s band and how we were playing the festival next weekend and that I was actually in the store trying to find something to wear to the gig. “Well this is great,” she said as she wrapped up the blouse I’d picked out, black with white silhouettes of birds. “I hope so,” I said. “Not too Portlandia?” “Definitely not.”

On my way out, I passed the guy who was shopping. “Excuse me,” he said, “Did I hear you say you were in a band? Because our band is looking for a keyboard player.”

“Oh, I’m just a ringer for a friend’s band. I’m a fiddle player, mostly. But I know some people. Do you have a card? I could pass on some names. Is it based here in the neighborhood?”

“Oh, we’re all over. I don’t think I have a card with me” he said, rifling through his wallet anyway. “But maybe I’ll run into you again. In the neighborhood.”

“See you around!” I said, shrugging my shoulders. The bells jingled as I walked out into the afternoon sun, humming under my breath.

My mother was a tailor
Sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

After a quick stop at the hairdresser’s to make an appointment for later in the week, I stopped in the wine store. No music there. Just wine. I grabbed a couple of bottles from the refrigerator and a couple from the shelf. The owner rang me up. “That’s supposed to be a good one,” he said looking at a sparkling wine made from malvasia, “but I haven’t tried it yet.” “Someone talked me into trying it the last time I was here. I’ve been looking forward to it.” “Let me know how it is.” I nodded and paid and was back on the street.

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk

As I hiked up the hill to home, I could still feel the song running through my fingers. But now, in the door, it’s time to move on to the next song and the next instrument. With a glass of wine in hand, I’ll tune my fiddle and play through a century’s worth of waltzes before tonight’s rehearsal. Life is sweet.

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain
Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2015 3:47 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: