The backstory here goes back to Brooklyn, me as a boy, a pre-teen enduring a less than happy existence, truth be told. A release, an important one was the radio. I cannot recall home many hours I listened, safely inside away from there asphalt, concrete and brick that was my milieu day in and day out. Hours, countless hours with my radio sweetly bathing me in Paul Robeson (Old Man River), what I think was Dixieland (that I heard like one million times, and that nearly got me into Big trouble, for I loved to whistle, and sometimes when I was teaching in New York City and in Pittsburgh, I’d realized OMG’ I’m whistling Dixieland in my Big City classroom, or in the school halls during passing!!) and Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Coming . . . . My favorite of them all? Red River Valley, which I must have heard one billion times, and sang aloud too many times to count.
I survived the streets, grew up, still singing, whistling those loved songs/tunes. The irony of all this was not lost on me. But . . . Where was the Red River Valley, and why wasn’t I there? Why did I grow up where I did, why was my early association with Them preordained?
In 1962, me and a friend hitchhiked from Binghamton, New York to Miami Beach, Florida. We must have been dumber than stumps, for once we entered ‘the Deep South,’ as soon as we opened our mouths, my poor boy from Brooklyn and his rich boy from Westchester, New York tagged us as prospective troublemakers! Not! We reached Miami Beach, and I was not lynched after I left that Greyhound Bus Station in that town in South Carolina. How was I to know that I misread the sign on that mens room door??
I’m now a resident of Eatonton, Georgia, to the puzzlement of my own family and friends. Why Daddy? Why? Those country tunes sung to my heartstrings. I tired of carrying that huge folding knife those 4.5 years of riding the subway to and from college. I must have always wanted acres, sun, trees, civility and butterflies.
I just did research using Google. I listened again to Red River Valley, sung in turn bye Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold, Connie Francis and Chris Isaak & Steve Nicks. The lyrics vary some, but this sticks:
Then come sit by my side if you love me, Do not hasten to bid me adieu, Just remember the Red River Valley, And the one who has love you so true.
It turns out that the real Red River Valley is out in the U.S. northwest, but that didn’t matter so much to me. Butterflies became a Sweet pursuit for me, and Virginia’s Butterflies & Blooms Briar Patch Habitat in Eatonton, Georgia riveted me, with its fly squadrons of fresh, beautiful butterflies. Field guides had teased me, suggesting how much more beautiful butterflies were in the American South. Especially memorable was their mention that the Red-Banded Hairstreak butterflies were amazing, with broad, richly red bands and more.
Well there they were, including this one in the Briar Patch Habitat, and Scrumptious swallowtails, yellows and oranges and more, so much more. I found myself singing Red River Valley time and time again in that special place, and the haunting memories of a life on the streets, an unhappy childhood home, teaching and disciplining tough kids who were notorious in their own neighborhoods . . . and Frieda’s A”H battle and passing softened and slipped away.
Yes we’re not in the famous Red River Valley, but this new home so works for me, and the excitement of planting new natives, that may one day draw King’s Hairstreaks, Goatweed Leafwings, Hessel’s Hairstreaks, Great Purple Hairstreaks and more, excites me.
It seems that Johnny Cash sang Red River Valley also, but I could not Google that. As I close, I’m brain singing it, as he would have.