Red River Sure: Bob Dylan and the Red River Valley


By Larry Fyffe

‘Red River Valley’ is a traditional folk song that dates back to the Red River Colony in Manitoba, Canada. The Red River flows from Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s home state, into the Great White North; it’s waters eventually end up in Hudson Bay where the Masked Marauders stayed.

American singers of country and western songs, riding the red horse of cultural imperialism, turn the ‘girl’ in that song into a ‘cowboy’, who oddly enough speaks French (‘adieu’). The original song features a half-French, half-native maiden who falls in love with a soldier sent with troops from Eastern Canada to put down the Red River Rebellion of 1870:

So come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the girl who loves you so true
(Red River Valley)

The original song lyrics take, not the point of view of a ‘cowboy who loves you so true’, but the point of view of the forsaken girl:

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

Lyrics to a related song by Bob Dylan indicate that its writer is aware of the forsaken girl from the North country – whether it’s by a soldier or a cowboy that she’s been left behind on the Red River shore.

Dylan adds a twist to the love story:

Well, I sat by her side for a while
I tried to make that girl my wife
She gave me the best advice and she said
‘Go home and lead a quiet life’
Well, I been to the East and I been to the West
And I been out where the black winds roar
Somehow though I never did get that far
With the girl from the Red River shore
(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

The colour ‘black’ is characteristic of Baroque poetry; Dylan lightens things up a bit in a reference to Jesus Christ at the end of the song: “Well, I don’t know what kind of language that he used”. Perhaps on the cross Christ says ‘adieu’.

Christian analysts of Dylan’s lyrics, at least the ones on a narrow path through life, consider that the whole song is about Jesus, that even the Red River girl represents Christ. Seems they feel obliged to give Jesus a sex change operation in many a song that Dylan writes so they can marry Him or something. Tweeter, it’s weird, I tell you.

The Kingston Trio sing a traditional song from real cowboy country called ‘Red River Shore’ that features the river that flows into the the Gulf of Mexico. The bronco-riding cowboy in that song meets his doom on the way to meet the girl on the Red River shore, his chest pierced by flying angels from the pistols of her kinsmen.

Dylan’s certainly aware of that song’s Poe-like tragic ending, and mixes the two rivers – one North, one South – together down in his basement – note, we mustn’t forget Joe Two Rivers in the lonely log cabin up in Canada where Lenore is tapping at the window like a raven with a broken wing:

At the foot of yon mountain where the big river flows
There’s a fond creation and a soft wind that blows
There’s a fair maiden, she’s the one I adore
She’s the one I will marry on the Red River shore
She wrote me a letter; she wrote it so kind
And in that letter these words you will find
‘Come back to me darling, you’re the one I adore
You the one I will marry on the Red River shore’
(Red River Shore: Kingston Trio)

Bob Dylan, a professional artist, steals the written-letter-so-kind line from the song above and places it in ‘Not Dark Yet’. In his own ‘Red River Shore’, Dylan likewise rhymes ‘adore’ and ‘shore’. True to form, added is a Dylanesque twist:

Well, I can’t escape from the memories
Of the one that I’ll always adore
All those nights when I lay in her arms
Of the girl from the Red River shore
(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

Also mentioned is the lonely cabin in the Canadian woods:

Pretty maids all in a row lined up
Outside my cabin door
I’ve never wanted any of them wanting me
Except for the girl from the Red River shore
(Bob Dylan: Red River Shore)

And that Gnostic Mary Magdalene is always hanging around the gates of Eden:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row
(Nursery rhyme)

In his ‘Red River Shore’, Dylan sings: ‘Well, I’m a stranger here in a strange land’
– he’s a Jew in mostly Christian America – which is a reference to a Bible story in which Moses seeks shelter on the Red Sea shore – from the Egyptian Pharoah. In exile, Moses marries, according to some interpretations of the Bible story, a black girl:

And Moses was content to dwell with the man
And he gave Moses Zipporah, his daughter
And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom
For he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land”
(Exodus 2: 21,22)

Oh dear, maybe it was ‘Oprah’ that he married – I get all mixed up and confused sometimes – that’s for sure.

What else is on the site

1: Almost 500 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


  1. Left or Right
    One of the most beautiful songs ever crafted about
    the strange but unmistaking interference between hydrology and woman – kind

    one more fleeting Muse pulling and pushing Bob in more than one sense

  2. There’s also a western movie called ‘Red River Shore’ that takes place in Oklahoma.

  3. Reuben’s Train, folk song:

    I been to the East I been, to the West
    I’m going to where the chilly wind’s don’t blow

  4. Things to remember, places to go
    Pretty maids all in a row
    Eagles: Pretty Maids All In A Row)

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