History of the Red River Valley- Part 1:

Let's look at some of the history of this great song. The origin is still debated by music scholars but recently new light has been shed. There's some great information about this and other songs at the Mudcat Discussion Forum: http://www.mudcat.org/threads.cfm

Where is the Red River?

There are several Red Rivers in the US and Canada. While studying the life of Lily May Ledford we learned that she was from Red River Gorge, Kentucky and fished and hunted in the Red River.

The song was first recorded in 1925 by cowboy Carl Sprague as "Cowboy's Love Song" then the "Sherman Valley" by Bascom Lunsford the same year. Many early country artists including Kelly Harrell and Ernest Stoneman followed with "Bright Sherman Valley."

The biggest hit was the 1927 version by Hugh Cross and Riley Puckett named the "Red River Valley." How did it get the name?

Frank Walker, head of Colombia Records "Country Music" division talked about how the song was named in an interview with Mike Seegar: "There was a thing up my neck of the woods called Mohawk Valley. There was a tune we played called Bright Mohawk Valley. I loved the tune and taught it to Riley Puckett. Riley played it and sang it and we made a record called Bright Mohawk Valley. We didn’t sell many records but it didn’t bother me cause I loved the song. I thought it over and figured that maybe it was because the Mohawk River wasn’t well known. There was a river in Arkansas named the Red River. So why couldn’t I change the Mohawk River to the Red River? Which we did. Riley recorded it over again and it became one of the biggest selling country music records ever made."

Frank Walker's neck of the woods was upstate New York and the Red River in Arkansas is called the Little Red River. Did he mean the Red River in Texas which is large and better known? We'll look at the two largest Red Rivers in the US and Canada.

RED RIVER, TEXAS: The Red River, Texas is in the Mississippi drainage basin and is the second longest river associated with Texas. Its name comes from its color, which in turn comes from the fact that the river carries large quantities of red soil in flood periods. The total length of the Red River is 1,360 miles, of which 640 miles is in Texas or along the Texas boundary. The drainage area of the river in Texas is 30,700 square miles. In 1944 Denison Dam was completed on the Red River to form Lake Texoma, which extends into Grayson and Cooke counties, Texas, and Marshall, Johnson, Bryan, and Love counties, Oklahoma, and was once the tenth-largest reservoir in the United States. Principal tributaries of the Red River, exclusive of its various forks, include the Pease and Wichita rivers in north central Texas, the Sulphur River in Northeast Texas, and, from Oklahoma, the Washita. The Ouachita is the main tributary in its lower course.

RED RIVER, CANADA- NORTHERN US: The Red River Valley is a region in central North America that is drained by the Red River of the North. It is significant in the geography of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba for its relatively fertile lands and the population centers of Fargo, Grand Forks, and Winnipeg. Palaeographic Lake Agassiz laid down the Red River Valley silts.

It seems that Frank Walker deserves credit for the song becoming popular by the name "Red River Valley." But where did the Mohawk Valley song he knew come from?

One of the first printed versions of the song appears in sheet music, titled "In the Bright Mohawk Valley," published in New York in 1896 with James J. Kerrigan as the writer. According to folk researcher and collector Carl Sandburg, this song originated as "In the Bright Mohawk Valley" (1896) and became "The Red River Valley" in the western United States and Canada. Here are the lyrics from Kerrigan:

Words and music by James J. Kerrigan; New York: Howley, Haviland & Co. Copyright 1896

Oh they say from this valley you're going,
We shall miss your sweet face and bright smile,
You will take with you all the sunshine
That has gladdened our hearts for awhile.

I have waited a long time my darling,
For those words that your lips ne'er would say,
Now the hope from my heart has departed,
And I'm told you're going away.

Chorus:For the sake of the past, do not leave me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu!
Oh, remain in this bright Mohawk valley,
With the fond heart that lives but for you.

Do you think of the valley you're leaving?
Oh, how dreary 'twill be when you go,
Have you thought of the heart, so lonely,
That has loved you and cherished you so.

Tell me not that our lives must be severed,
Give me back, love, the smile once so dear,
Oh! this valley would lost (sic) all its brightness,
If its fairest of flow'rs were not here.

This is the version that Walker knew from New York. Others including Edith Fowke disagreed that Kerrigan was the author of the song. Her 1964 article "'The Red River Valley' Re-Examined," appeared in Western Folklore 23, p. 163-171 suggested a Canadian origin of "Red River Valley." She offers evidence that the song was known in at least five Canadian provinces before 1896, claiming that the song developed in 1869 at the time of the Red River Rebellion. This finding led to speculation that the song was composed at the time of the Wolseley Expedition to the northern Red River Valley of 1870 in Manitoba. It expresses the sorrow of a local girl or woman (possibly a Métis, meaning of French and aboriginal origin) as her soldier/lover prepares to return to Ontario.

Edith Fowke: "This is probably the best known folk song on the Canadian prairies. --- later research indicates that it was known in at least five Canadian Provinces before 1896, and was probably composed during the Red River rebellion of 1870 ('The Red River Valley Re-examined', Western Folklore, 23, 163). Later versions are short and generalized but the early form told of an Indian or half-breed girl lamenting the departure of her white lover, a soldier who came west with Colonel Wolseley to suppress the first Riel Rebellion. Mrs Fraser's text is very similar to the earliest known versions, and Barbeau gives another traditional version from Calgary in "Come A-Singing."

The text for Fowke's version was published in the Calgary Herald and discovered by Hugh Dempsey of the Glenbow Museum in the papers of Col. Gilbert E. Sanders, a former Mountie. Here is Fowke's version, published it in Western Folklore in 1964:


From this (F)valley they say (C7)you are (F)going;
(F) I shall (F)miss your bright (F)eyes and sweet (C7)smile,
(C)For a- (F)las you take (F)with you the (Bb)sunshine (Gm)
That has (C)brightened my (C7)pathway a-(F)while.

Chorus: Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley
And the girl who has loved you so true.

For this long, long time I have waited
For the words that you never would say,
But now my last hope has vanished
When they tell me that you're going away.

Oh, there never could be such a longing
In the heart of a white maiden's breast
As there is in the heart that is breaking
With love for the boy who came west.

When you go to your home by the ocean
May you never forget the sweet hours
That we spent in the Red River Valley,
Or the vows we exchanged 'mid the bowers.

Will you think of the valley you're leaving?
Oh, how lonely and dreary 'twill be!
Will you think of the fond heart you're breaking
And be true to your promise to me?

The dark maiden's prayer for her lover
To the spirit that rules o'er the world;
His pathway with sunshine may cover,
Leave his grief to the Red River girl.

Here's a great old version by Powder River Jack Lee from his 1938 "Cowboy Songs:"

RED RIVER VALLEY Powder River Jack H. Lee

From the Valley they say you are going;
I will miss your sweet face and bright smile,
But at last you are seeking the sunshine
That will brighten your pathway awhile.

I've been thinking a long time, my darling,
Of the sweet words you never would say,
But at last all my fond hopes have vanished,
For they say you are going away.

Chorus: Come and sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true.

Do you think of this valley you are leaving?
Oh how lonely and how dreary it will be!
Do you think of the fond heart you are breaking
And the pain you are causing to me?

I have promised you, darling, that never
Would a word from my lips cause you pain;
I have promised to be yours forever
If you will only love me again.

Chorus: Come and tarry awhile, do not leave me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true.

Oh, there never should be such a longing,
Such an anguish and pain in the breast,
As dwells in the heart of a cowboy
Where I wait in my home in the West.

So bury me out on the prairie,
Where the roses and wildflowers grow;
Lay me to sleep by the hillside,
For I can't live without you, I know.

Chorus: Oh, consider awhile, do not leave me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true.

"Cowboy Songs," 1938, Powder River Jack H. Lee, pp. 8-9, with sheet music, published by The McKee Printing Co., Butte, Montana.

It's important to note that Jack Lee (1872-1946) was a cowboy back in the 1890s and this version probably goes back to the late 1800s.

According to Powder River Jack: "The original version of the Red River valley pertains to a love affair between a cowboy and a school teacher who hailed from the east and was returning to her home. He knew that if she left him that he had no doubt would never see her again, and so as he sings he is pleading with her to tarry awhile and hoping to influence her at the same time regarding her departure. Some of the later versions have lost the real meaning of this song, such as the "Red girl who loved you so true, etc.," and in all events there were six verses in the written copy of the original as I first heard it, and the first line of each chorus at the end of the second verse differed from the preceding choruses. The Red River Valley in the original song refers to South Dakota, where I first heard Frank Chamberlin sing it at a cow camp up on the Moreau River. Carl Sprague was given credit for the music, and of all sentimental songs of the cowboys, there are none more beautifully expressed and with more real deep feeling than the Red River Valley."

"Many years have passed since I first met pretty Kitty Lee, and as we'd race our broncs along the stretches of Powder River, this is the song that we loved and would sing while riding in the moonlight. And then I went away and headed south to trail the beef herds, and ten years passed before we met again. On a glorious golden day in New Mexico, as I cantered up to the chuck wagon of the Circle Diamond outfit, I spied the form of a lithe girl on a fiery pinto, and again I met Kitty Lee, who, with her brother, was riding overland to Texas, and with their pack outfit came in to join us for chuck. And now we ride the trails together and "side by side we hope to travel the great divide," and the Red River Valley will always mean to me the starlight nights of years gone by, when the Wyoming moon shone down and the Big Horn Ranges cast their long shadows where the coyotes lurked and howled and where we parted for the fleeting years."

Jack's version and information certainly was one of the inspirations for my painting. So we can see the song has been claimed to have been written in Canada, and the Red River could be the Red River found in South Dakota and in the north central US. New information about this song has come to light.

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