June 23, 2013

'River, Stay 'Way from my Door'


---- — I love music and rivers, but not necessarily in that order. My interest in music spans the spectrum, but I especially love music from the first decades of the last century. As for rivers, I think you know which one I favor. It’s the one that zooms by 3 feet from the back of our Morrisonville home.

I have often referred to it as “our beloved Saranac.” At times, it is less beloved than others. Take about a week-and-a-half ago, for example. It rained and rained. We sang all the rain songs we could remember and thought about gathering lumber for an ark. 

The level rose to flood stage at 9 feet and didn’t stop there. We checked the sump pump(s) in our basement many times a day. We watched weather reports and listened as local media preached doom and gloom. We were told that the Cadyville dam was breached or at least damaged. The “official” warning was that we should prepare to evacuate, if necessary. 

Soon that tune was tempered by another agency assuring us that the previous report was either bogus or an exaggeration. We stayed put. We’ve been through this drill before. Mind you, our house on the Saranac was built in the 19th century and is still standing strong. It has endured monstrous ice jams and other natural disasters throughout our tenure here from 1970 to the present.

At more than one point decades ago, we were told that the dam had actually broken and there was a 12- to 16-foot wall of water on its way. We loaded kids and dogs into the car and headed to the radio station where I worked at the time. We walked into the door, and both dogs instantly pooped on the floor to exhibit their distress. I didn’t do that, but I was tempted.

Yes, we endured the jams of ‘81, and we have a T-shirt, the front of which proclaims, “I survived the Morrisonville Flood.” 

Fast forward to June 2013. We watched and waited and sang a few choruses of the Johnny Cash classic, “Five Feet High and Rising.” I looked at Kaye and intoned, “How high’s the water, Mama?” She was not at all amused. We both remained awake and alert for at least one night and long into the next day.

Huge blocks of what we call “shot rock” were placed along our eroded river bank in the ‘90s, and that stabilized barrier has held through every threat including the latest. Old Man River rose this time and flooded at least 100 feet into the woods on the other side. River creatures that live in tunnels beneath our bank were either drowned or displaced.

Roads were closed. Cellars were flooded, and there was grief all around us. We went to church and said our prayers of gratitude. That’s what we do.

After it was all over, and things were back down to semi-normal levels, I thought of another song you might never have heard. It’s a gem: “River, Stay ‘Way from my Door.” It’s been recorded many times, but dates to 1931 when it was written by Mort Dixon and Harry M. Woods. Woods’ biography is amazing. He was born with no fingers on his left hand but became a well-known pianist, singer and songwriter. He was also a real character whose life story reads like fiction. 

One of the first recordings of “River” in 1931 was done by another famous singer named Vernon Dalhart, who also sang “The Prisoner’s Song” that sold millions. If you don’t know about his work, look him up. He recorded more than 1,600 songs.

Also in 1931, a singer named Kate Smith, whom the North Country claims as its own, collaborated with Guy Lombardo to do a marvelous arrangement of the “River” song. It’s significant because it is the only recording she ever made with the Royal Canadians.

So, next time the river rises, listen outside your own door, and perhaps you can hear Gordie and Kaye harmonizing on that very song.

Have a great day. Keep the water wings handy and please, drive carefully.

Gordie Little was for many years a well-known radio personality in the North Country and now hosts the “Our Little Corner” television program for Home Town Cable. Anyone with comments for him may send them to the newspaper or email him at