Thanks to Hollywood and early country music singers, the song is usually now thought of as a cowboy’s love song, but the original lyrics actually refer to a seminal event in the history of the Manitoba valley for which the song is named.
The original Red River Valley, composed around the time of the 1870 Red River Rebellion, tells of the relationship between a local Métis woman and an English-speaking soldier who came west with the troops. The Métis girl is heartbroken because her soldier lover must decamp back east with his troop:
“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 girl who has loved you so true.”
Red River Valley had spread through five Canadian provinces well before the availability of recording technology or radio. Then in 1896, the tune was published in the U.S. as In the Bright Mohawk Valley, and became associated with a different Red River, the one that runs through Texas. Later lyrics have a cowboy saying goodbye to his girl, and today that is the best-known version.
Red River Valley was first recorded in 1925, by cowboy singer Carl Sprague, and Gene Autry popularized it on film as early as 1936. Red River Valley has been featured in a multitude of western films, including the landmark pictures “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Ox-Box Incident.” Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan and The Sons of the Pioneers sang it in 1941’s “Red River Valley.”
Countless folk and country stars, both Canadian and American, have recorded or performed Red River Valley over the decades, including Lynn Anderson, the Andrews Sisters, Eddy Arnold, Gene Autry, Judy Collins with Kris Kristofferson, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Dale Evans, Connie Francis, Woody Guthrie, the McGuire Sisters, Ed McCurdy, Mitch Miller, Stevie Nicks, Marty Robbins, Pete Seeger, the Smothers Brothers (in a comic version for television), The Sons of the Pioneers, George Strait, Slim Whitman, Roger Whittaker, and Roger Williams.
Some versions, like the McGuire Sisters’ cover, have new lyrics but still tell the story of a lover being left behind.
Red River Valley’s fame has spawned parodies and related songs, for example Gene Autry’s Answer to Red River Valley; Johnny Cash’s Please Don’t Play Red River Valley; and the comic Red River Valley II, about prairie farmers’ hardships. The decorated songwriter Bob Dylan, who hails from Minnesota near the Manitoba border, honoured Red River Valley by quoting its line “Come and sit by my side” in his song Red River Shore.
The timeless Red River Valley continues to be appreciated by young and old across North America and beyond.