What Happens When a Folk Song Goes to War

Director Philip Kaufman gives a close-read of why he chose to feature the Canadian ballad "The Red River Valley" in his recent HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.

hemingwayandgellhorn red river 615.jpgHBO

You may or may not have liked HBO's recent presentation of Hemingway & Gellhorn, a sprawling film about the writer and the writer, featuring a swaggering Clive Owen and a sublime Nicole Kidman, which first aired on cable in late May. I liked it more than I thought I would. And while I'm not going to review the movie, there were two moments in it—gorgeous meldings of image and sound—that lingered with me and spurred me to write this piece.

Let me briefly set the scene. Having met in a bar and exchanged horny glances, Earnest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn did what all reasonable couples do when they want to start a relationship: They went to cover a civil war, the Spanish Civil War being a more attractive option than the Chinese Civil War. So Gellhorn, not yet the third Mrs. Hemingway, is traveling to Spain via train. And Hemingway, already the fabled author of Adios a las Armas, is on his way by private plane. Ain't love grand?

Here's the first clip, courtesy of our friends at HBO.

THE SONG

The song struck me first: "The Red River Valley," sung by Eric Schneider. I have always loved that song. Any man who ever dreamed of being a cowboy has loved that song. But until I looked it up I didn't know that it is not a song about the Red River Valley of Texas and Oklahoma, the well-chronicled home of Roy Rogers and John Wayne. Instead, it is a song about the Red River Valley up north, La Riviere Rouge, in and around the woods of Minnesota, North Dakota, and the Canadian province of Manitoba.

The song is Canadian in origin. It's about love and leaving in a time of war and rebellion. The acclaimed expert on the topic of the musical version of the "Red River Valley" seems to be the long-dead Edith Fowke, a notable and beloved Canadian folklorist who quite literally wrote the book on such songs. Here is what she wrote, a half century ago, about the origins of the song:

This is probably the best known folk song on the Canadian prairies. It is also widely known in the United States, where it was believed to be a Texas adaptation of an 1896 popular song, "In the Bright Mohawk Valley." Later research indicates that it was known in at least five Canadian provinces BEFORE 1896, and was probably composed during the Red River Rebellion of 1870.

On the basis of documented history, an American claim to the original 'Red River Valley' is rather thin. On the other hand, Colonel Wolseley's men certainly bivouaced along the Red River in May, 1870, probably in the area of what is now St. Norbert, a safe distance from the saloons and brothels of a fledgling Winnipeg. The Red River Rebellion was continental news, and Wolseley's troops were credited with easing Manitoba into confederation in that year.

As one might expect, social intercourse between Wolseley's troops and citizens would certainly lead to matters best described by songs and poems. The similarity of versions of this particular song in our historical records is very substantive evidence supporting the claim of a Manitoba-born song called the Red River Valley.

It's little wonder that Philip Kaufman, director of Hemingway & Gellhorn, chose the song for the prelude to his Spanish Civil War scenes. Via email, here is how Kaufman subsequently explained his decision to make that choice:

I had experimented with it many years before in a very early 'temp' track of The Right Stuff under the orbiting flight of John Glenn (though it was not used in the final film). It had a stirring quality, particularly evocative of a form of American heroism that had its roots in the American West and in the Westerns of John Ford. There's a feeling of parting—of the 'sweet sorrow' of parting (Glenn was leaving his wife, his comrades...his earth... A man on a mission that might have been doomed)—but there is also that 'heroic' feeling of embarking on a great adventure... of 'pushing the outside of the envelope'... and (lyrics aside) the music imparts a kind of thrill.

There's a sweep to it, an epic feeling that is rarely captured. An epic feeling without a sense of triumph or conquest. It's somehow...modest...and personal, intimate...and there's something that I can't quite put my finger on...that somehow connects it perfectly to an ineffable component of the Right Stuff. The Right Stuff: Grace Under Pressure... comes right out of Hemingway, out of what came to be called "The Hemingway Code" of behavior.

SCENE ONE

Nicole Kidman just takes my breath away in this scene. There is the playfulness on the train. There is the tender reaching out to the little goat. There is gleam in the young volunteer's eye ("Brooklyn," played by Schneider) when he pulls out the guitar. There is his buddy, the "Hungarian" (Edin Gali), whittling down a sausage with his knife. There is Kidman biting her lip, not quite seductively mind you, but in anticipation. There is the man of action, Hemingway, always with the guns. And they are all headed to war.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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