It may have been about the poorhouse.The story goes there was a workhouse in NOLA that had a rising sun on its gate or the city womens' prison.And the melody line goes back to 18th century England.
While the song is old, a fellow named Dave van Ronk wrote the familiar arrangement. Dylan "stole" van Ronk's version for his first album. A couple years later, The Animals ripped off Dylan. This is all discussed in interviews in Martin Scorcese's " No Direction Home"
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