The first song I can remember dancing to is ‘Red River Valley’. At Ohakune Primary school, on Friday afternoons, we Primers were marched across the concrete to the Hall, an old wooden building in which the Standards were educated in a dozen classrooms opening onto a central area where assemblies were held. This was also where we did Folk Dancing. The song, sometimes known as ‘The Cowboy’s Love Song’, opened mournfully: 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 / Which has brightened our pathways a while. The second verse, however, in the version broadcast through tinny speakers into the hall, doubled the tempo. So we swing on down to the valley / And we take it to the left and to the right . . . It was a caller, inviting us to join into what might now be called square dancing. Each of us, in pairs, processed through a double line of our fellows, at the end of which a new partner awaited us. And we swung her, or him, to the left or to the right, accordingly. Woody Guthrie recorded ‘Red River Valley’ in 1944; he later used the tune to set a song, called ‘Jarama Valley’, during a battle in the Spanish Civil War. Bill Haley and the Four Aces did a swing version a few years later. Johnny and the Hurricanes, Connie Frances, The Ventures. The tune re-surfaces on Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Haired Stranger’ LP (1975), where it’s called ‘Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight Lady?’ There are Hebrew translations and the song is on the sound track for John Ford’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1940) and also in ‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971). It’s one of those songs, like ‘You Are My Sunshine’, that everybody knows. I’m not sure of the provenance of the version we danced to in the late 1950s in Ohakune; it’s probably irrecoverable. Suffice to say the melody, and the words, are lodged in my mind forever now. It’s interesting though; it’s possible the song is of Canadian origin and commemorates, if that is the word, a punitive visit by the 1870 Wolseley Expedition to the then remote province of Manitoba to suppress a local rebellion by Métis folk, under the leadership of David Louis Riel. The Métis were an indigenous, but creolised people, attempting to defend their ancestral lands. There’s French and English, as well as Native Americans, in the genealogy of the Métis. Even more interesting, is the suggestion that the song was originally composed by a Métis woman lamenting the departure of the soldiers of the Wolseley Expedition, one of whom she has fallen in love with. Makes sense; but it also changes the tenor of the song: who is going? The invader, maybe reluctant or a conscript, who became a lover? Or the girl that some cowboy fell in love with? I have no doubt. Anyway, I always wanted to end up dancing with Florence Moule and sometimes I did. Moments of ecstasy and transport that never entered recall. Years later I bought the Bob Dylan album ‘Tell Tale Signs’. Track five: ‘Red River Shore’. I’ve been listening to it again recently. An outtake from the ‘Time Out Of Mind’ sessions and now almost as legendary as ‘Blind Willie McTell’. It owes something to the Kingston Trio’s song with the same title and is sung by a man about a girl he once knew but could not own; but is really, in a way that seems inimitable, a summation of every song of lost love ever sung. Yes, and Bob is the Cowboy and it is the Girl who is left behind. But is she? Or did she leave him? Or tell him to go? Or was she just ‘unattainable’. You can’t know. It slays me every time I hear it. Florence Moule, dead from leukemia, too young, only in her thirties. With her sheaf of red-gold hair and her wild ways. But I don’t want to get stuck on her, not any more than I already am. The thing that most gets me about the Dylan song is the way the musicians can’t wait to resolve the melody, can’t wait to give the tune the full gorgeousness it deserves . . . but have to restrain themselves until the story in the lyrics is told. By which point, there’s hardly any time left. They get just a few bars to resolve the tune, before the fade. But in those few bars there is a kind of perfection: what can be felt, what can be lost, what can still be felt even though it is lost. And meanwhile, another part of me, the more skeptical part perhaps, is still down there in the hall, dancing to a different tune down the aisle of bodies: As we swing on down to the valley . . .
(photo by Eric Lee-Johnson, Te Papa)