The classic folk anthem ‘House of the Rising Sun’ holds a special place in music. It seems to be the very definition of timeless. With its authorship unknown and million other mysteries in the undercurrent of its welter, it is a song that barely seems to have been written, and more so found under the floorboards of some eternal dive bar.
However, as dog-eared as it was, it seemed to represent something cutting edge for the Greenwich Village folk denizens who reprised it in the early 1960s. You see, when the Jack Kerouac-spawned gingham-clad folk anti-heroes descended on the crooked clubs of the day, authenticity was key and this led to a slew of musicians essentially just playing the same handful of tunes over and over.
However, there was something about the rock ‘n’ roll adjacent feel of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ that made it seem visceral. This was later realised by The Animals and as their frontman Eric Burdon says: “I’ve been told by lots of people who know, and were around at the time, that that’s what stimulated Bob [Dylan] into going electric, and becoming a rock star as opposed to a folk star.”
Burdon continues: “You might say we were all exposed — when I say ‘all of us,’ I mean the same age group on both sides of the Atlantic — we were exposed to the root of true black music at the same time, and realized that that was the road that we wanted to take.”
Something about the individualism of the anthem was profound for Joni Mitchell too. As she recently told Arista Records founder Clive Davis when reflecting on the evolution of her career: “My early work is kind of fantasy, which is why I sort of rejected it,” she said. Many of Mitchell’s early songs were takes on traditional folk pieces which go back to time immemorial.
However, she quickly ditched the traditional for something a little closer to the heart, “I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it. It scared the singer-songwriters around me; the men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.”
Thus, it seems fitting that when Joni Mitchell tackled the seismically influential anthem back in 1963, she seems to be developing her own introspective air. Delving into the mystic lyrics, she makes the song seem less like a facsimile of some fantasy of old and more like a soulful fable of the folly that we can all face in the human comedy that folk presides over like a gatekeeper of the downbeat. And what’s more, it is truly beautiful to boot.