Manitoba History: The True Story of the Song “Red River Valley”
by James J. Nystrom
The folk songs of traditional music have evolved from the blending of different cultural traditions. Familiar songs sometimes spring from surprising origins. One of the most notable is the popular folk song “Red River Valley.” What appears to be a simple song of lament sung by cowboy singers around campfires is, in reality, the end of a musical mix that has its foundation in the melodies of traditional folk songs sung in the mists of a Gaelic past and whose lyrics were written in a personal expression of the cultural conflict occurring during the nineteenth-century settlement of the American continent by Europeans and the related displacement of the indigenous natives.
“Red River Valley” was first recorded as “Cowboy Love Song” in 1925 by Carl T. Sprague, one of the first cowboy singers from Texas. The biggest hit of the cowboy version was the 1927 version by Hugh Cross and Riley Puckett. In both recordings of the song, the lyrical associations are about the Red River Valley that marks the border between Oklahoma and Texas.
A song named “Bright Mohawk Valley” with the same tune was published as sheet music on Tin Pan Alley in 1896 with James J. Kerrigan as the writer, but the song was thought to have been adapted for a New York audience. The earliest known written manuscript of the lyrics to “Red River Valley” were found in Iowa bearing the notation of the year 1879.
Although it is not widely known, there are two significant Red River valleys on the American Continent: The Red River Valley of the South and the Red River Valley of the North. And it is to this Red River Valley of the North that the origins of “Red River Valley” lead. The famed Canadian folklorist, Edith Fowke, gave mostly anecdotal evidence that the song was known in at least five Canadian provinces prior to 1896 and speculated that the song was composed at the time of the Wolseley Expedition of 1870 in Manitoba. She claimed that the song was well known on the Canadian prairies and held the form of a story about a Métis girl lamenting the departure of her Anglo lover, a soldier who came west to suppress the Red River Rebellion. The text for Fowke’s version of the song was published in “Western Folklore” in 1964 and was discovered in the papers of a former Canadian Mounted Police officer, Col. Gilbert Sanders. Fowke has written, “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.” Here are the lyrics discovered by Edith Fowke:
The Red River Valley of the North has a long and storied past in the history of the settlement of North America. The river is one of the few north-flowing streams on the American continent and it originates at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers in the southern border of North Dakota and Minnesota and it flows northward over 900 kilometres as the border between the two states into Manitoba before finally emptying into Lake Winnipeg whose waters eventually flow into Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean.
The watershed of the area was part of Rupert’s Land (named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a nephew of Charles I and the first Governor of the HBC), the Hudson’s Bay Company land concession in north central North America granted in 1670. It was first settled by French-Canadian fur trappers who came to the area to trap beaver for pelts. These trappers married First Nations women and established the first true “Métis” culture (part native and part French-Canadian) in North America. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, HBC traders established fur posts inland from Hudson Bay to compete with the North West Company that operated out of Montreal. The establishment at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers of a colony of displaced Scottish highlanders by Lord Selkirk, a shareholder in the HBC, was intended to gain control of this crucial river junction from the rival Nor’Westers. However, within a few decades Red River had become a predominantly Métis settlement of both French and English speakers.
By the 1860s, as Ontarian immigrants began to arrive in the settlement, pressures grew for annexation of the colony by Canada. Land disputes and cultural conflicts between the settlement’s Métis inhabitants and the growing Anglo elite were exacerbated by Canada’s 1869 annexation of Rupert’s Land. Louis Riel’s Provisional Government negotiated the entry of Assiniboia into Confederation, and in 1870 the Manitoba Act created the Province of Manitoba. To underscore its new jurisdiction in the region, the Canadian government sent the Wolseley Expedition to Red River.
It was during this period of cultural clashing that Edith Fowke has postulated that the song “Red River Valley” was first composed. Part of her anecdotal proof as to the origin of the song hinged on the use of the word “adieu” in the lyrics, a word not normally associated with cowboys of the southwestern plains.
There has been speculation, drawn from the descendants of the settlers in the area, that the song was sung by a Métis woman who was the lover of one of the men in the Wolseley expedition at a gathering to commemorate the military victory of the Hudson’s Bay Company over Louis Riel. She was lamenting in song the departure of her soldier/lover from the Red River Valley after the victory.
If this speculation were true, then the song would be ironic in both melody and lyrics. The tune of Red River Valley was reminiscent of several Gaelic songs in notes and musical construction. Gaelic songs were composed of notes that could be played on the bagpipe, the hornpipe or the violin, the traditional instruments. The typical form was the ballad which told a story in strophic or repeated musical strains. Two traditional folk songs with similar structure and notes were the “Connemara Cradle Song” (which also has direct similarities with the song, “Down in the Valley”) and “The Drums of Dumbarton”. These songs have ancient origins. “Connemara Cradle Song” was a traditional Irish lullaby about a fisherman’s safe return from the sea. “The Drums of Dumbarton” was included in the “Orpheus Caledonius” collection of traditional Scottish songs published by William Thomson in 1733. In a further irony, a copy of “Orpheus Caledonius” was given to Robert Burns (the acknowledged “Bard of Scotland”) by the sister of Lord Selkirk. Burns included “The Drums of Dumbarton” in his collection of traditional Scottish songs which introduced his most famous lyrical poem, “Love is like a Red, Red Rose”, the words of which Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying were the ones that most influenced him at the start of his musical career. The Gaelic-speaking settlers of Red River Valley had brought along the instruments and songs of their parent country. By singing the song in a stylistic form commonly used by the Scottish settlers rather than the form normally used by the French-Canadian Métis, the singer was both complimentary and critical in her presentation. The lyrics from the Fowke version, if taken in the context of its performance, are even more provocative. The invitation to “Come and sit by my side” was an open acknowledgement of what was then a scandalous affair. “Do not hasten to bid me adieu” asks for recognition of the French culture which the Scots settlers were trying to eradicate or at least ignore. “Be true to your promise to me” tears the veil from the often broken promise of marriage made by soldiers to the Métis women in order to receive sexual favours. There is a direct reference to the racial prejudice that existed in the Scots settler community in the two stanzas that refer the “white maiden” and the “dark maiden”, and to the difference in the “longing” of the different groups of women.
It was no wonder that the song, so mocking in both tune and lyrics, as well as so entertaining in the pleasantness of its melody, would be remembered and played again and again at the many musical gatherings of the two communities which eventually merged over time. The Red River Settlement continued to grow as it became the city of Winnipeg. Some of its people dispersed into other areas of Canada and the United States and they took the “Red River Valley” with them. As is the case with most ballads of the time, they became localized with the changing of the lyrics to fit the new situation. One such localization was the Red River of the South rendition popularized as a cowboy song. It was not the only version. “In The Bright Mohawk Valley”, “Bright Laurel Valley”, “Bright Sherman Valley,” “We Shall Walk Through The Streets Of The City” and “Bright Little Valley” are all localized versions of “Red River Valley.”
One of the final ironies of “Red River Valley” lay in the eventual merging of the two former rival traditions, French and Scottish, when descendants of the Scottish settlers also intermarried with Aboriginal peoples and began producing a Scots-Métis culture. Descendants of the Manitoba (Red River Settlement) Métis people (which included both Scots-Métis and French-Canadian Métis) were affirmed as a distinct nation by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2003. It is estimated that 50% of all Western Canadians have some Métis blood in their ancestry. “Red River Valley” is a song of the Métis struggle to survive and a celebration of their recognition as a distinct culture.
Sources and Acknowledgements
Boulton, Charles A., Reminiscences of the North-West Rebellions, with a Record of the Raising of Her Majesty’s 100th Regiment in Canada, etc., Toronto, ON: Grip Printing and Publishing Co., 1886.
Fowke, Edith, “The Red River Valley Re-examined,” Western Folklore Volume 23, Number 3, pp. 163-171, July 1964.
Fowke, Edith, The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, Markham, ON: Penguin Books Canada, 1986, p. 45.
Fuld, James J. The Book of World Famous Music: Classical, Popular and Folk, New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1966, p. 457.
Johnson, James, Robert Burns and Stephen Clarke. The Scots Musical Museum, in 6 volumes, Edinburgh: privately published, 1787-1803. http://archive.org/details/scotsmusicalmuse05john.
Stanley, George F. G., The Birth of Western Canada, London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1936.
Stanley, George F. G., Toil and Trouble: Military Expeditions to Red River, Canadian War Museum Publ. 25, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1989.
Thomson, William, Orpheus Caledonius: Or, A Collection of Scots Songs, Set to Music, in 2 volumes, London: privately published, vol. 1, 1725; vol. 2, 1733.
The Burns Encyclopedia, www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/index.shtml
King Laoghaire, The Home of Irish Ballads and Tunes, www.kinglaoghaire.com/site/home/
Page revised: 29 January 2022