The term “campfire song” is generally used to refer to a familiar old song that folks can sing along with to a simple guitar accompaniment. But the tunes we cover in this series extend beyond the repertoire of well-fed cowboys on the open range. Regardless of whether you’re indoors or out, or how you cook your dinner, we call them campfire songs. As a singer-songwriter, I find learning these tunes and their history very interesting.
This selection, “House of the Rising Sun,” is cautionary tale of things gone wrong in New Orleans. Made popular by a rock version that the Animals recorded in 1964, it has been a staple in folk music stretching back to at least the beginning of the 20th century, with roots in much older European folk traditions. While the basic melody was nailed down pretty early, the accompanying chords have seen a lot of variations along the way. The earliest recordings of the song—like Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster’s 1933 “Rising Sun Blues” and Woody Guthrie’s version from 1941—were generally in Appalachian folk or bluesy styles. Among my favorite other interpretations are Josh White’s brooding solo take and Ronnie Gilbert’s jazzy three-piece arrangement with the Weavers.
As always with the songs in this series, we’ll keep the arrangement simple and stick with chords in open and first position: Am, then C with a G in the bass, D with an F# in the bass, and F (fretted with a full barre), which creates a neat descending bass pattern (A, G, F#, F). The only other chords are basic open C and E shapes.
The song is in 6/8 time—that’s six eighth notes per bar, counted, “One, two, three, four, five, six.” If you are not familiar with this meter, play along with the video to get a good sense of how it feels. I like to play the song with a flatpick, mixing things up with strums and single notes, as transcribed in the first eight measures. You could keep things even simpler and go with straight strumming throughout, or use a basic fingerpicking pattern—whatever works best for you.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.