Last month, Lyle noted one of the lacks that this column has suffered: A lack of Carter Family songs. That set me thinking about other lacks. I was thinking about particular performers, so I sat down with Lyle's list of songs we've done (no, I don't remember every song I've written about — I've written too many song descriptions for other contexts). And I suddenly noticed that we've never done a song with the word "river" or "valley" in the title. Now how can we in Minnesota do a column of songs and not bring in a river?
Odds are, of course, that you know this song — it has been recorded by dozens of old-time acts. One of the things that set me thinking about this song was Kelly Harrell's version, Bright Sherman Valley. But the vast majority of the versions of this song are about southern rivers (the Red River of the South, which flows near Sherman, Texas) or sometimes eastern rivers (the earliest absolutely datable version of this song is James Kerrigan's Bright Mohawk Valley of 1896).
Kerrigan's version is widely regarded as the original. Even those who didn't accept this tended to think the song was southern -- that's where it was best known. But Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke didn't believe it. She thought it was about the Red River of the North, and she collected Canadian versions to prove it. There were quite a number. But most of them were recent.
Fowke did have a few older scraps. But the evidence was not overwhelming. More recently, though, John Garst took a look at the problem. And when John Garst looks at a problem, he worries it until he has the answer. (Those of you who read the Old-Time Herald may have seen his recent article on John Henry. That's just a small fraction of the evidence he has gathered on this particular point.) He has convinced me: The original of this song is about the Red River of the North.
And that makes it a very sad tale indeed, because it's not just a lost love song. It's a song of an impossible love. On the evidence, the Red River Girl is either an Indian or a Metis (the French name for what the English would call a half-breed). Her lover is either a soldier -- perhaps one called in to destroy the Metis during their rebellions! -- or perhaps an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. Either way, he is going back to England, and she cannot come with him -- even if he loved her, he could not take such a wife home.
It's a story far too common in war, but rarely told as beautifully as this.
Fowke's versions were a bit of a mess, so this is slightly composite. But every line comes from a genuine Red River Valley variant. I wish we knew the true story -- if there is one -- which inspired it.
From this valley they say you are going,
I will miss your bright eyes and your 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.