We all know one version of “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s a classic folksong that has been redone and covered by many artists through the years.
But where did it come from? And what does this have to do with coal?
Grab your handy hat, Sherlock. We’re about to do some investigative work.
Tracking Down its History
Let’s be frank here: the writer of this song is completely uncertain. No matter how much digging we do we won’t find a definitive answer anywhere. And that is just fascinating.
Stories and songs have a very important role in passing down history. This particular song is believed to have been passed down and based on a broadside ballad, which is music written on a single sheet of inexpensive paper.
As one version of the title indicates—the song is also known as “Rising Sun Blues”—this song tells of a house of a rising sun. That sun has a few different possibilities regarding what it represents.
The sunburst insignia made popular during Louis XIV’s reign is one possibility. This exterior home feature was brought to North America by French immigrants. However, the French also used “rising sun” when referring to brothels and English pubs.
Regardless of where it came from, it’s believed to be older than New Orleans—a city that was founded in 1718.
The song has been adapted time and time again, but the first recording of the song was by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded the song under the title of “Rising Sun Blues” in 1933.
The song really took off when The Animals recorded it in 1964 in just one take.
However, the farthest back a recorded version of lyrics goes back as far as coal miners singing. In a magazine column called “Old Songs That Men Have Sung,” the following lyrics are noted:
There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one
Coal miners sang a lot it seems. Enough, at least, for an entire column to be dedicated to it…
Coal Miners and Songs
Songs as a form of protest had a powerful effect on an industry. Many artists have written protest songs commenting on the conditions in which coal miners worked under.
Coal miners themselves sun songs at protests, as well as while they were working in the mines.
But why might they have sung in the mine? There’s something about a song that can lift the spirits of a group of people even under some of the scariest conditions. We saw it in the film Titanic. While people were scared and in a panic, a band of musicians began playing a song to try and calm everyone as much as they could.
Perhaps this is why the coal miners sang while on the job. Their hard work was, there is no doubt, hard work, so why not sing together to pass the time and raise the spirits?
While the sun was raising on homes across the country, coal mined by singing men warmed the homes both day and night.