The Red River Valley is a song that has come through the years to represent the idealization of the cowboy and the west. After it became a hit song in the 1920s it became immortalized by Gene Autry's 1936 hit movie "Red River Valley" and then it was followed up by Roy Rogers 1941 movie also named "Red River Valley."
Dispite its widespread national and international notoriety it has been known exclusively as a cowboy song. By the 1920s the song was traced back to James Kerrigan's 1896 song "In the Bright Mohawk Valley." Frank Walker, head of Colombia Records "Country Music" division knew about the "Mohawk Valley" song as did Carl Sandburg. By the 1960s Kerrigan and the US claim of authorship was challenged by Edith Fowke who claimed the song originated in Manitoba during the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70. She documented several occurances of the song before 1896 in the Red River area.
Curiously it was only a recent investigation last year into the history that turned up the first published lyrics. Credit should be given to Gus Meade whose book "Country Music Sources" pointed to "A Lady in Love," Wehman's Collection of Songs #24, October, 1889, p 17 as the first published source; still these lyrics were not public and remained unknown but to perhaps a few people. Folk researcher and friend John Garst followed up the lead and tracked down a copy of the song.
Here are the first published lyrics from Wehman's Collection, dated October 1889:
A LADY IN LOVE
Oh, they say from this valley you are going,
I shall miss your blue eye and bright smile;
And, alas! it will take all the sunshine
That has brightened my pathway for awhile.
Then consider well ere you leave us,
Do not hasten to bid us adieu,
But remember the dear little valley,
And the girl that has loved you so true.
Do you think of the home you are leaving,
How sad and how dreary 'twill be?
Do you think of the heart you are breaking,
Or the shadow it will cast over me?
I have waited a long time, my darling,
For the words that you never would say,
And at last all my fond hopes have vanished,
For they tell me you are going away.
The source is unknown. Did Kerrigan's "Mohawk Valley" published 7 years later come from this song? Since they circulated in the same geographic area there's a strong possibility.
The song likely had a Canadian or northern origin. One of the strongest clues are the lines from the first published version that are sung as the chorus today:
Then consider well ere you leave us,
Do not hasten to bid us adieu.
These words including the french (Canadian) word for goodbye (adieu) are one of the strongest arguements for a northern origin. It's likely the song spread after the 1870s to South Dakota much as reported by an early cowboy source Powder River Jack.
Curiously the first lyrics titled "Red River Valley," dating 1879 and 1885 in locations Nemha and Harlan in western Iowa have to my knowledge never been published. According to Fuld, The Book of World-Famous Music, p. 457: "A pencil manuscript of the words of The Red River valley bears the notation at the bottom 'Nemha 1879, Harlan 1885' and sets forth five stanzas. The University of Iowa, Iowas City, Iowa (Edwin Ford Piper Collection). Nemah and Harlan are towns in western Iowa."
Red River Valley is one of the most important and popular songs. Yet the reported earliest lyrics have not be authenticated or published by the year 2008. Amazing! I've asked John Garst to look into finding out more information. I'll let you know.
Here's and early version of Bright Sherman Valley by Doctor Lloyd and Howard Maxey:
There's still much we can learn about many of our songs,