We headed into the studio with ten songs to record for our next album, “The Ghost of John Henry,” but at the last minute, I decided to add an 11th to the schedule (we had to go up to 11, after all…). In a lot of ways, recording that last song — “House of the Rising Sun” — was the most terrifying part of this entire process for me. Here are some people who have also recorded versions of this song: Nina Simone. The Animals. Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie. Lead Belly. Pete Seeger. Joan Baez.
So you can see why I was a little nervous about tackling this monster. What on earth could I add to what had already been done with it? Well, now we know the answer, one way or the other:
You can download our version of “House of the Rising Sun” for free, here:
It’s an old, old song, and Wikipedia will be happy to tell you all about it. But as much as I simply enjoy the song — musically, thematically, what-have-you — there is a lot of personal weight behind it. My dad played in bands from the time he was a kid, and when I came along, the first song I remember him playing for me on guitar was the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Consequently, those arpeggios (or maybe “Louie, Louie”) were probably the first thing I ever tried to play on guitar, although my hands were too small and that effort went nowhere, landing me behind a drum kit, instead. When my kids came along and I sang them to sleep every night, one of the songs I sang them was “House of the Rising Sun.” (I did sing them some less depressing ones, too, in case you’re worried.) I began incorporating “House” into some of my solo acoustic shows, and then we began playing it together as a band. It seemed like something we should try to get down since we were in the studio, anyway, and it had a little extra meaning because, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my dad came in from Texas to play bass on the sessions.
I had the conscious thought regarding this song more than any other in this process, “I must get this right.” If it wasn’t right, if it didn’t bring another voice or perspective or sonic experience to the table, then it would just be some band doing a forgettable cover song. I hope this isn’t that. And I like to think that it isn’t simply arrogance to believe it isn’t. I’m not aware of another version quite as dark, quite as …eerie?…haunting? as ours. Jody’s cello part brings a texture and a sadness that really linger for me. And I hope I always remember sitting in the control room listening back to the drum tracks for the first time, and everybody’s jaws just dropping when Kurt played that monster fill that powers the song into its finale.
The video I made to go along with the recording is much more evocative than literal, and for the photos that make it up I drew on the wonderful resource that is the American Memory Project. The photo effort that produced the images I used in the video was the same effort that produced the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo Dorothea Lange took in a work camp full of families uprooted by the Dust Bowl. Dorothea Lange shot several of the photos used in this video, most notably the photos of the two men walking down the road, past a billboard inviting them to take the train next time and “relax.” The last photo of the video was actually taken in the Autumn of 1910, and is the oldest one I used.
The American Memory collection online is an utterly stunning collection of photos, documents, and recordings dating back to the 1400s. I cannot recommend enough spending some time with it.