When I was about thirteen years old, The Wickam Family Band (of which I was the fiddler), had the opportunity to play for the Colorado Gun Collector’s banquet. This was a group of surly old cowboys – the real kind, tough looking old men with ruddy wrinkles, and a sinewy build to match. They were dressed to the 9’s in their fancy cowboy hats and sparkly belts.
We were playing our show, and I was playing my “hot fiddle tunes” like Jesse Polka and Back up and Push when one of these guys requested Red River Valley. Now, to me in my 12 year old fiddling brilliance, Red River Valley was a baby song. If a tune wasn’t difficult, then why would I bother playing it, but it was requested, so I played it. Inside, I was thinking, “This is dumb, why would this guy request such a simple song. I could be playing lots of tunes that are harder than this one.” But I played it to the best of my ability, and was shocked to look up and see the old man with tears in his eyes.
And, as if seeing him cry wasn’t enough, when I finished playing, the old man came up to me and thanked me. He shook my hand, and nonchalantly placed a twenty dollar bill in my hand. Now at thirteen years old, twenty dollars was a lot of money, and it was hands down the biggest tip I had ever received.
That moment forever changed my perspective on what makes a good song. A good song isn’t decided by it’s difficulty or its musical complexity. It’s decided by the emotional significance that people tie to the song. Red River Valley meant something special to that man, and by playing it, I had an opportunity to brighten his pathway a while.
Origins of Red River Valley According to Wikipedia
Red River Valley is a folk song and cowboy music standard of controversial origins that has gone by different names—e.g., “Cowboy Love Song”, “Bright Sherman Valley”, “Bright Laurel Valley”, “In the Bright Mohawk Valley”, and “Bright Little Valley”—depending on where it has been sung. It is listed as Roud Folk Song Index 756, and by Edith Fowke as FO 13.
Edith Fowke offers anecdotal evidence that the song was known in at least five Canadian provinces before 1896. 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 man or woman (possibly a Métis, meaning of French and aboriginal origin) as her soldier/lover prepares to return to Ontario or as his girlfriend or wife can’t take the harsh life in Texas and leaves him to return to Canada..
The earliest written manuscript of the lyrics, titled “Red River Valley”, bears the notations 1879 and 1885 in locations Nemha and Harlan in western Iowa, so it probably dates to at least that era.
The song appears in sheet music, titled “In the Bright Mohawk Valley”, printed in New York in 1896 with James J. Kerrigan as the writer.
In 1925, Carl T. Sprague, an early singing cowboy from Texas, recorded it as “Cowboy Love Song” (Victor 20067, August 5, 1925), but it was fellow Texan Jules Verne Allen’s 1929 “Cowboy’s Love Song” (Victor 40167, March 28, 1929), that gave the song its greatest popularity. Allen himself thought the song was from Pennsylvania, perhaps brought over from Europe.
Red River Valley Lyrics:
- From this valley they say you are going.
- We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
- For they say you are taking the sunshine
- That has brightened our pathway a while.
- So come sit by my side if you love me.
- Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
- Just remember the Red River Valley,
- And the one that has loved you so true.