“Red River Valley” is generally considered to be a cowboy song that refers to the Red River of the South. The Red River runs through the southern Great Plains from Texas to Louisiana, touching Oklahoma and Arkansas along the way. Like most traditional folk songs, its origins are unclear.
This classic song of the West may have originally referred to the Red River of the North, which forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota and runs into Manitoba, Canada. The song was found in at least five Canadian provinces prior to 1896. “Nemaha 1879” and “Harlan 1885” are written on the earliest known manuscript of the lyrics. These notations might refer to counties in Nebraska or towns in Iowa. The song first appeared in sheet music form in 1896 under the title “In the Bright Mohawk Valley,” referring to the region of New York state between the Adirondack Mountains and Catskill Mountains.
One of the earliest popular recordings of the song was Texan Jules Verne Allen’s 1929 recording for Victor Records, titled “Cowboy’s Love Song.” Gene Autry further popularized the song in the 1936 Western film Red River Valley. These recordings and other like it helped cement the song’s association with cowboys and the Red River of the South.
Come and sit by my side, if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true
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 pathways a while
I’ve been thinking a long time, my darling
Of the sweet words you never would say
Now, alas, must my fond hopes all vanish?
For they say you are going away
Do you think of the valley you’re leaving?
O how lonely and how dreary it will be
Do you think of the kind hearts you’re breaking?
And the pain you are causing to me
They will bury me where you have wandered
Near the hills where the daffodils grow
When you’re gone from the Red River Valley
For I can’t live without you I know