Red River Shore is another standout track from the new Fragments release. (An excellent accordion-heavy version was included on Tell-Tale Signs.) Two versions are included. The first sounds more like a demo than something that would be seriously considered for the album. Daniel Lanios plays some ragged, heavy-handed guitar. Dylan’s voice is ok but not at its best. The second is better. The slower tempo makes more sense for a sad song. The backing instrumentation is toned down. Dylan vocal is vastly improved. If this version had been included – or perhaps another similar one but with more of the spooky vibe that ensconces much of Time Out of Mind – the album might have been better.
I’m guessing it wasn’t included because, although it’s a good song, stylistically it’s quite different from the rest of the recording. Red River is a folk song, not blues-based. Although the second version is more TOOM-style, it still wouldn’t have fit because at heart it’s a folk song. The story – tragic lost love – is the theme of many old folk/country tunes. Barbara Allen and Long Black Veil are two that come to mind that Dylan has covered (brilliantly). Another reason, perhaps, is that the song doesn’t seem quite finished. There are a few too many easy rhymes that jar the ear.
Dylan’s Red River Shore seems to be a major rewrite of the traditional Red River Shore. Dylan borrowed a line from it – “she wrote me a letter, she wrote it so kind” – for Not Dark Yet.
It was a popular song during the folk boom of the sixties. Perhaps Dylan was thinking of the version done by the pop-folk group, The Kingston Trio. Dylan mentions in Chronicles how much he liked them. Or maybe it was the New Christy Minstrels’ version.
BALLAD OF THE RED RIVER SHORE- as performed by the Kingston Trio in 1965 At the foot of yon mountain where the big river flows, There's a fond creation and a soft wind that blows, There lives a fair maiden, she's the one I adore. She's the one I would marry on the Red River shore. She wrote me a letter, and 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're the one I will marry on the Red River shore. So I jumped on my bronco and away I did ride, To marry my true love on the Red river side. But her pa knew the secret, and with twenty and four, Come to fight this young cowboy on the Red River shore. I grabbed my six-shooter, spun round and around, Till six men were wounded and seven were down; I can't fight an army of twenty and four, When I'm bound for my true love on the Red River shore. At the foot of yon mountain where the big river flows, There's a fond creation and a soft wind that blows, There lives a fair maiden, she's the one I adore. But never will marry on the Red River shore.
Supposedly, Red River was collected by John Lomax and included in the 1938 expanded version of his Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. However, I could not find the 1938 version on-line. We’ll have to take their word for it.
The song was later collected by one Max Hunter (good name for a song collector!) from Missouri. Hunter, a traveling salesman, had the foresight to bring his reel-to-reel on his travels. He recorded about 1,600 Ozark folk songs for prosperity.
Listeners not super familiar with the Bible might not realize that the “guy” in the verse below is clearly Jesus, a prophet never too far from Dylan’s mind.
Now I heard of a guy who lived a long time ago
A man full of sorrow and strife
That if someone around him died and was dead
He knew how to bring him 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
The line “Well I’m a stranger here in a strange land” is a reference to The Book of Exodus.
And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.
Of course, there could be a degree of separation from the Bible. Maybe Dylan was thinking of the song, I Am a Pilgrim. Less likely, but Robbie Robertson included a similar line, “I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land” in his song Somewhere Down the Crazy River. I’m sure many other songs contain similar paraphrases.
I am a pilgrim and a stranger Traveling through this wearisome land I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord And it's not, not made by hand I've got a mother, sister and a brother Who have gone this way before I am determined to go and see them, good Lord For they're on that other shore I'm goin' down to the river of Jordan Just to bathe my wearisome soul If I can just touch the hem of his garment, good Lord Then I know he'd take me home I am a pilgrim and a stranger Traveling through this wearisome land I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord And it's not, not made by hand
“Outside my cabin door” is a line in Hollis Brown. “I ramble and gamble” brings to mind the 1960 Dylan recording of Rambler, Gambler.
Finally, the song is named for a real river in Texas that sometimes has a reddish tinted to the type of soil in the area.