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Who Sang It Best: “The House Of The Rising Sun”


By Richard Reitzfeld

It dawned on me the other day that a recurring argument I get into with a lot of my friends with similar tastes in music to my own is, “who sang [insert song here] better?”

Does the original artist of a song get extra points for creating the song, chord progression, and basis of inflection, or are you taking both versions at face value? Many an hour have I spent locked in heated debate over the best version of “Take Me To The River” or “Love Reign O’er Me.”

I think what I really enjoy about these arguments is that there’s no right or wrong. What it really boils down to is two people just showing off their love for a song, and the depths to which they’ve analyzed it. And that’s pretty righteous if you ask me.

So for today, I wanted to take a look at a song that I am personally very conflicted about: “The House of the Rising Sun.” The two versions in question here are sung by The Animals and by Bob Dylan.

No question, both versions are tops for me. I could listen to either on loop. One thing that makes “The House Of the Rising Sun” so interesting is that its origins are unknown. The oldest recorded version of it dates as far back as 1934, and every indication is that the song was around for years before that. However, arguably, the two best known versions are those of Bobby D and The Animals.

So let’s get into it. As I see it, what it comes down to is structure and polish versus raw emotion. The Animals version is largely structured in that the pacing of the delivery of the lyrics is in tune with the instrumentals throughout the song. As such what you get is a song that’s easier on the ears, and easier to sing along to.

The Dylan version on the other hand is much the opposite. You’ve got the acoustic guitar pumping chords in the same order and at the same rate, but Dylan is everywhere. He holds notes too long, the volume changes, his voice cracks… but it works. It works damn well.

And oddly enough, the timbre of both versions is opposite their structures. The Animals’ version has a very rough gritty tone to it that matches the disorganization of the Dylan version, whereas Dylan’s interpretation has a much cleaner sound despite it’s unpredictability.

Now for me–and I really worry that this sounds pretentious–those who are satisfied with The Animals’ version when presented with both, and I use the word “satisfied” intentionally, are so because they prefer to listen shallowly. They’re looking to be pleased, not stimulated. But that’s not necessarily bad… It’s definitely a more pleasing version of the song.

But I prefer something that makes me think and feel, and for that I have to go with Bob Dylan. The honesty with which the song is sung, while not the must pleasant sounding, is moving. And the crescendos–for me at least–feel like he is personally ripping my heart out like that creepy shaman dude from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and stomping on it.

I feel that the best thing a song – or any piece of art really – is to make you feel something, good or bad. And in that, Bob Dylan’s “House Of The Rising Sun” is a clear winner for me.