The Red River Valley
From this valley they say you are leaving;
We will miss your bright eyes and your smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That brightened my pathway awhile.
Come and sit by my side O my darling,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu,
But remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true.
This song has a complicated history — so much so that I did not include it in the printed version of the songbook, since I had no Minnesota version and the evidence seemed to indicate that the Red River of the song was the river which joins the Mississippi in Louisiana. It remains true that the earliest firmly dated version of the song is “The Bright Mohawk Valley,” published by James Kerrigan in 1896. What’s more, the song is well-known in the South, with references to the Red River of Texas. It is much less common in northern collections.
But Edith Fowke, Canada’s busiest collector, says on p. 83 of Fowke/Johnston-Canada1 that “The Red River Valley” is “probably the best known folk song in the prairie provinces.”
Eventually Fowke went farther. In an article in Western Folklore #23 (1964) entitled “The Red River Valley Re-Examined,” she cited evidence that the Red River involved was the Red River of the North, and that the song predated Kerrigan. Among other things, she cited an article by Elizabeth Bailey Price in the June 1930 Western Home Monthly that the song was sung by traders between Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and Saint Cloud. She claimed that there were five Canadian provinces with records of the song prior to 1896.
In 2008-2009, John Garst, one of the busiest folk song scholars active today, verified much of Fowke’s work, showing that this song was known in the north and that the tune as well as the text predates Kerrigan. Thus we can claim it as a song of our region.
And there is a Minnesota version. Margaret Anderson learned it from her mother, Anne B. Anderson (born in Minneapolis and raised in Bemidji), who in turn had it from her father, E. Lynn Benner, who was born in 1888. The version probably came from a popular songbook, but it did pass through three generations. This is the verse and chorus quoted above.
Fowke speculated that the song dated back to the 1870 Red River Rebellion, and that it was originally a song of a Métis girl who had become involved with a soldier who was leaving with the rest of his company.
This fits with her version. It is also possible that he might have been an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company or the North West Company, the large British corporations which governed most of Canada north and west of Toronto well into the nineteenth century. Much of their business was done along the Red River, and they employed many agents who worked among the natives (both Indians and Métis). Unlike soldiers, employees of the Companies could quit — but, if they stayed with the company, they went where it ordered (and they often had to move very quickly when the ships reached York Factory or Churchill; the navigation season on Hudson’s Bay was very short). HBC men often served five year terms — plenty of time to meet the local women, but also plenty of time to get very, very homesick. And it was a hard life, with few luxuries; even in the mid-nineteenth century, “The world of work at a fur trade post remained essentially ‘pre-industrial'” (Newman, p. 12). Little wonder that the men hurried home when their term was up! Such a young man could, of course, have married the girl — but, if he had any social standing at home, he would likely have been shunned for marrying beneath him. We cannot really say what lay behind this song (we cannot be absolutely sure it even comes from the North), but it is likely to have been a very sad situation.
Newman, p. 3, quotes Blair Stonechild, chair of the Department of Indian Studies at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, on the behavior of the HBC: “The company takes the view that it treated Indians fairly, using the rationale that it did not attempt to exterminate them, as was done in the U. S. It is the difference between being in the fire and being in the frying pan.”
Below is a composite of several of the northern versions, which gives a feel for what the early Minnesota versions probably sounded like. This is not intended to be politically correct; you may wish to sing the last line of the chorus as “And the girl who has loved you so true.”
From this valley they say you are going,
I will miss your blue eyes and sweet smile,
Far from me you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened my pathway a while.
It’s a long time that I have been waiting
For those words that you never did say,
But alas! all my fond hopes have vanished,
For they say you are going away.
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 half-breed who loved you so true.
So remember the valley you’re leaving,
How lonely and dreary ’twill be;
Remember the heart you are breaking
And be true to your promise to me.
As you go to your home by the ocean
May you never forget those sweet hours
That we spent on the banks of the river
In the evenings among prairie flowers.
There could never be such a longing
In the heart of a pale maiden’s breast
As dwells in the heart you are breaking
With love for the boy who came west.
And the dark maiden’s prayer for her lover
To the Spirit that rules all this world
Is that sunshine his pathway may cover
And the grief of the Red River Girl.