“Red River Valley” is one of those songs for which everyone has their own story. It has at least a dozen claimed origins – as many as the regions the Valley touches and then some – and everyone who knows the song, knows it from a different source. An emotional scene in a movie, a family who sang it together, a battered LP bought at a yard sale, a childhood school music class. The common thread being that wherever the song is heard first, it strikes a chord and takes on a personal meaning. Because like so many songs about a place, it is actually about the people in it. It can be sung by a lone cowboy in a secluded mountain valley, or as a duet in a New York apartment. Love and loss are the same everywhere.
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After listening to it together with them in the room, and again at home as we prepared to post it, Lisa and Joe’s Flipside song continues to amaze. “Little Bird” – which Lisa wrote and Joe produced the album version of – is a song of metaphors and images, complex in its design, but simple and perfect in its emotion. And their performance of it is simple and perfect in its emotion to match.
Sometimes there is a feeling of knowing a place well, though you’ve never been. We instantly felt at home in the apartment, though none of us had set foot there before. It was a beautiful, sunny loft in Soho that felt filled to its 20-foot ceilings with Spring. In the street below bike bells cha-chinged and jackhammers clanged. We set up while Joe and Lisa rehearsed with the windows wide open, knowing we’d have to close them for a clean recording, but in no hurry to stop the breeze from carrying the city up and in.
The “Red River Valley” of Joe and Lisa’s song fills us with comfort, though it’s not a place any of us have ever called home. Joe traveled from California, Lisa from Ireland. New York, where we all met that morning, falls right in the middle. And the song became the familiar meeting point between their two voices. Harmonies sung in a living room, where a family meets every day, sound like home. Wherever that may be.
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The Flipside: Lisa Hannigan & Joe Henry “Little Bird”
Because they were in the midst of touring together, Joe and Lisa had one of her songs already in their minds and fingers, ready to play for the Flipside of their 78. It came from an album of Lisa’s that Joe had produced, and it was clear from the wild focus of their duet performance of “Little Bird” that they had developed a deep relationship with the song together. The breath was swept out of the room from the moment they began. Even the street construction found itself struck silent by the command of their singing.