Bob Dylan And The Symbolism Of The Red River (Part II)

This article continues from The Symbolism of the Red River Part I

by Larry Fyffe

Regular British troops and Canadian militia under Colonel Garner Wolselley put down the ‘Red River Rebellion’ in Manitoba; inhabitants of the the area, including its Metis population, led by Louis Riel, rebel against the authority of the Canadian federal government because their rights are ignored; however, Riel is forced to leave the country, and he settles in Minnesota for a time (the US state from whence singer/songwriter Bob Dylan hails). Louis becomes a bit of a religious fanatic; returns to Canada; ends up hanged.

The eastern militiamen remain in the Red River Colony to maintain law and order, some forming relationships with Metis – women biologically part European, part native ‘Indian’.  Out of this historical setting arises a song that expresses the sorrow these women feel when their lover heads back home:

There could never be such a longing
In the heart of white maiden's breast
As dwells in the heart you are breaking
With love for a boy who came west
(Red River Valley ~ traditional)

The song changes over time, but its origins can oft be detected. In the very-much-revised song lyrics below, the narrator thereof figuratively tranforms into Louis Riel; the girl, into his love – Manitoba.

Not all that crazy of an idea really:

Well, I knew when I first laid eyes on her
I would never be free
One look at her, and I knew right away
She would always be with me
Well, the dream dried up a long time ago
True to life, true to me
Was the girl from the Red River shore
(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

The Red River flows into Lake Winnipeg, and eventually into often ice-bound Hudson Bay by way of the Nelson River, near where Gods River enters by way of the Hayes.

The song below at first appears to have somewhat the same Canadian theme as “Red River Shore”:

I got a house on a hill, I got hogs out lying in the mud
I got a long-haired woman, she's got royal Indian blood ....
Well, I'm driving in the flats in a Cadillac car....
Standing on God's River, my soul is beginning to shake
I'm counting on you, love, to give me a break

(Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

But it’s a crazy idea – the Canadian name has no apothrophe in it. God’s River likely refers to the Mississippi River in that no Cadillac car is going to be found driving on the shores of Hudson Bay.

The song lyrics below are jokingly and falsely attributed to Bob Dylan:

We were all just hanging around
Down at Ed's Cafe
Everybody had too much beer
And nothing to say
Overlooking Hudson's Bay

(More Or Less Hudson’s Bay ~ Masked Marauders)

While the following lyrics do refer to the Minnesota/Manitoba border:

If you're travelling to the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she was once a true love of mine

(Bob Dylan: Girl From The North Country)

The lyrics below have a Canadian reference. Charottetown, the capital of the province of Prince Edward Island, gets its name from the queen consort of George III:

In Charlottetown, not far from here
There was a fair maid dwelling
And her name was known both far and near
And her name was Barbara Allen

(Bob Dylan: Barbara Allen ~ traditional)

The Canadian province of Alberta takes its name from a daughter of Queen Victoria:

Alberta, let your hair hang low
I'll give you more gold
Than your apron can hold
If you only let your hair hang low

(Bob Dylan: Alberta)

But alas in the song ‘Red River Shore’, no matter what, the sun is simply not going to shine for its narrator – not even with thoughts of the miracles performed by Jesus Christ:

Well, I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him had died, and was dead
He knew how to bring them on back to life
Well, I don't know what kind of language he used
Or if they do that kind of thing anymore
Sometimes I think nobody ever saw me here at all
'Cept the girl from the Red River Shore

(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

The girl from the Red River is gone.

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