Campfire Songs: Learn to Play ‘Red River Valley’

In this acoustic guitar lesson, you'll learn how to play "Red River Valley."

Given the recordings of “Red River Valley” by singers like Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, and Connie Francis, it’s reasonable to assume that the song is American in origin. However, history has left that up to debate. There are actually two Red Rivers in North America—the Red River of the North, which stretches from the Canadian province of Manitoba down between North Dakota and Minnesota, and the Red River of the South, which flows along the border of Texas and Oklahoma, down into Louisiana. 

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The earliest documentation of “Red River Valley” was found in Iowa in 1879, but Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke claimed that it was known in at least five Canadian provinces prior to 1896, when it first appeared in sheet music form under the title “In Bright Mohawk Valley.” It’s speculated that it was written during the British Wolseley Expedition to Manitoba in the 1870s and became well known on the Canadian prairies as a love song written by an indigenous Métis woman to a British soldier.

This arrangement of “Red River Valley” has a simple, repetitive chord pattern, using the I (C), IV (F), V (G), and I7 (C7) chords in the key of C major. The strumming pattern has a bouncy feel, following a boom-chuck pattern throughout. In the accompanying video by Maurice Tani (on AG’s website), you’ll notice that he really only accents the first eighth note of the “chuck,” just grazing the strings on the upstroke. 

On the C and F chords, Tani alternates the bass between strings 5 and 6. For the C form, he moves his third finger back and forth between 5 and 6 at the third fret. As he notes in the video, he likes to play F a little differently, by wrapping his thumb around the neck to fret the F on the low E string, playing the rest of the shape with his remaining fingers. In terms of alternating the bass on the F, Tani goes back and forth between strings 6 and 5 without changing the shape, getting the most mileage from an already efficient grip. 


guitar notation for 'Red River Valley'
guitar notation for 'Red River Valley' page 2

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Kate Koenig
Kate Koenig

Kate Koenig is a singer-songwriter, music teacher, and music journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. They have been a regular contributor to Acoustic Guitar since 2017.

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