Red River Song

You could hear them coming from miles away. Those Red River Carts, using no axle grease,were the soundscape of the prairies, the pride of the Metis traders. Made entirely of wood, lashed together with rawhide, able to carry vast loads and negotiate anything the Red River Valley topography could throw at them, the Red River Carts were the perfect eco-vehicle for the 19th C. prairie. They could transport trade goods, Buffalo meat, household furniture, tools, weapons, alcohol, and of course, the ever-present Metis fiddles. In hunt or battle, they could also provide shelter, a circle of protection for hunters and their families. In summer, their tall wheels cruised through Manitoba gumbo. In Spring, they could float across the river with their wheels lashed beneath. In winter, placed atop runners, they traversed the snow. Repairs were as easy as the next grove of trees. Wood-on- wood construction, no axle grease, well, you get the picture. More accurately, you hear the picture, with its endless, moans, squeaks, and squeals…

Red River Song brings some of the many songs and stories connected to the 19 th C. rise of the Metis nation. From the first decade of the 19 th C to through to the 1870’s, they developed a culture perfectly suited to the prairies, one that incorporated influences from all sides of Indigenous, French Canadian, and English Settlers culture. The Red River Cart provided the means for their entrepreneurial endeavours, carrying trade goods south to St. Paul, Minnesota or west to Fort Edmonton. It was also instrumental in the Buffalo Hunt, the very heart of the Metis culture. From the Buffalo Hunt came the pemmican, which the Metis fashioned from dried powdered buffalo meat, berries, and grease. A 19th C. version of today’s Power Bar, pemmican was much in demand by the voyageur as they paddled umpteen hours a day in search of furs. Pemmican was big business for the Metis. A proud people, the Metis cut a colourful swath in prairie society with their distinctive jackets, chapeaux and sashes, with their
songs and dances, with their Blue and white flag featuring the infinity symbol.

Our concert begins with an Invocation to the Four Directions, combining the opening words of the Requiem Service with Cree and English text that describes the Four Directions, the Four Seasons. From there we move to the songs of Metis Bard Pierre Falcon, who recorded the great exploits of the Metis in their struggle to be an Independant Nation under Louis Riel’s leadership. Fiddling and dancing features throughout the concert, with two fiddlers, acclaimed young Manitoba fiddler Alexandre Tetrault and WSO regular Claudine St. Arnauld joined by two dancers. They provide the heart of the Metis musical experience. A new commission by Manitoban Eliot Britton, for choir, fiddle, and electronics, traces the true adventures of Freddy, a rogue bison on the loose in the Lorette area of the province. And an Ode to the Red River Cart combines arrangements of Metis folk-songs with the story of the Red River Cart. Everything closes with a kitchen party that combines fiddle tunes and dancing with “turlutte” a Metis form of scatting undertaken by the choir. Be prepared to play your spoons during the kitchen party and to make the sounds of the Red River Cart during the performance of the Ode.

This celebration of Metis culture must also acknowledge the long dark period that came for the Metis in the 1870’s once Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and his railway took over their prairie and dis-abused them of their lands, their culture, and the need for the Red River Cart. Louis Riel himself said that the Metis people would sleep for a hundred years before their artists and visionaries led them back to nationhood. How right he was. The current resurgence of Metis culture and nationhood is a joy to behold and we celebrate with you. Long live the Metis Nation, long live the Red River Cart!

– Mel Braun