This is the background story of "Red River Shore," the best song on Dylan's new album Tell Tale Signs. I will analyze the song in the next post.
John Lomax, the great folklorist, sought out authentic music including genuine cowboy songs, as opposed to the cowboy songs that Hollywood films and records made popular. Lomax found a great source in Slim Critchlow and his group the Utah Buckaroos out of Salt Lake City. When Lomax and his son Alan collected songs for their book American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), they included several Critchlow songs including "Red River Shore."
The song tells the story of a man who asks his love to marry to marry him on the Red River shore. She agrees, but her father won't allow her to marry a cowboy. The singer leaves, but his love implores him to return. He has to face her father, who ambushes him with 24 gunmen. The cowboy hero wounds 6 and kills 7 on his way to marry the woman.
On January 7, 1966 the Kingston Trio released Children of the Morning, their final album before separating. In their version of "Red River Shore," the father and his gang are too much for the hero. He will never marry his love. The song is credited to Jack Splittard and Randy Cierley. "Jack Splittard" was a joke name. The group copyrighted some traditional songs under the name and then split the "jack," or money.
Bob Dylan released Time Out of Mind on September 30, 1997. The album is shot through with skepticism. The young, idealistic Dylan is nowhere to be found. The songs are filled with despair, even dread. "Red River Shore" is an outtake from the album. Even though Dylan didn't use the song, there is a line in the Critchlow version that goes, "She wrote me a letter, and she wrote it so kind." This exact line appears in the song "Not Dark Yet," one of the best-known songs on Time Out of Mind. The Kingston Trio version of the song has the line without the word "and."
Two versions of "Red River Shore" emerged on Tell Tale Signs, one of them on the expensive 3-disc ooption. Both have their charms, though I think the one on the first disc is more moving.
The song is extraordinary, and so it merits closer analysis.