Bob Dylan - young - 1966
(Credit: Bent Rej)

How Bob Dylan broke an unwritten rule of folk music by recording ‘House of the Rising Sun’

We are dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to look back at a moment that Bob Dylan crossed a line and broke an unwritten rule of folk music. The freewheelin’ troubadour hasn’t made many mistakes in his illustrious career but this sure was one of them.

The world of music in the sixties was an artistic landscape. One that promoted free-spiritedness, welcomed the pursuit of artistic integrity and, in general, wasn’t so concerned with the rules that governed the rest of society—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few lines drawn in the sand that you can’t cross. Bob Dylan found this out the hard way.

Just like you never touch another man’s guitar without asking him, as Keith Richards found that out by receiving a thwack from the Granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry, you also never record a song before you have permission to do so. This is the fate that would befall Bob Dylan.

Before the iconic figure of Bob Dylan began to loom over the music industry he, just like countless thousands of other musicians, spent his time learning as much about music and as many songs as he possibly could. Nowadays, that may be downloading guitar tabs and lyric sheets, perhaps even getting the instrumental track up on YouTube so you can play along. But in the early sixties, it meant sitting at the feet of your favourite singer and listening, watching, simply hoping to pick it up.

That extra step meant that the sharing of such songs was more scared than ever before. In the smokey coffeehouses of New York City in the early sixties, there was an influx of folk artists all singing from the same Tin Pan alley sheet, all lifting tunes from the great American songbook and redirecting them at a new audience. Before he truly began to craft his own, Bob Dylan was just the same.

Dylan was milling around the Greenwich Village folk scene just the same as anybody else, hoping to grab a new tune here and there. It meant when he caught up with Dave Van Ronk one of the scene’s most influential figures and supposedly the inspiration for the Coen Brothers film Inside Lellwyn Davis, even featuring as one of those arrested at the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

A seasoned composer and expert musician form an early age, Van Ronk was a seriously influential performer to be in cahoots with. For Van Ronk, he, unfortunately, showed Dylan one of the old classics he had been creating a new arrangement for by the name of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Dylan was enamoured with the track and before asking permission put it on his debut LP mere weeks before Van Ronk himself was set to put it on tape. Dylan had crossed a line.

In the liner notes for his compilation album The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Van Ronk said of the occurrence and the song’s evolution under his guidance: “I had learned it [‘House of the Rising Sun’] 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,” recalled Van Ronk. He changed the sound “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.” It was likely a stage which Dylan had been present at too.

“Then, one evening in 1962, I was sitting at my usual table in the back of the Kettle of Fish, and Dylan came slouching in,” he continued. “He had been up at the Columbia studios with John Hammond, doing his first album. He was being very mysterioso about the whole thing, and nobody I knew had been to any of the sessions except Suze [Rotolo], his lady. I pumped him for information, but he was vague.” It was a sheepishness that was telling Dylan’s real story.

The freewheelin’ troubadour answering Van Ronk’s probing questions with “Everything was going fine,” before asking “‘Hey, would it be okay for me to record your arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun?’ Oh, shit.” Not a man tom turn down his friends without good cause, Van Rink replied: “‘Jeez, Bobby, I’m going into the studio to do that myself in a few weeks. Can’t it wait until your next album?’ A long pause. ‘Uh-oh’. I did not like the sound of that.”

“‘What exactly do you mean, ‘Uh-oh’?'” pressed the folk singer. The reply from Dylan would be enough to see the two singers fighting in the street if they were lesser men: “‘Well’, he said sheepishly, ‘I’ve already recorded it.'” It was a line crossed by Dylan and one which would karmically come back to bite him on the behind.

Shortly after Dylan released his version of Van Ronk’s arrangement of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ he was put in his place by The Animals who released their own definitive version of the track. It forced Dylan’s hand to stop playing the number and now made The Animals the frontrunners of the song. It was enough to put Dylan in his place and set the singer-songwriter’s laser focus towards crafting his own songs.

Below, we’re bringing you all three versions of the song, one from Dave Van Ronk, one from Bob Dylan and the other from The Animals. Let us know which is the definitive version of the classic folk song ‘House of the Rising Sun’.

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