The Ballad of Almeda Riddle, Part One
A Woman of the Ozarks
For most of her life, Almeda James Riddle lived a normal, productive life of a mother and grandmother in the Arkansas Ozarks – except for one thing. Music was even more important to her than it was to most of the people around her; and music played an important role in everyone’s lives in the Ozarks, whether it was church singing or singing lullabies to their children. In the book, A Singer and Her Songs: Almeda Riddle’s Book of Ballads, she introduced the first chapter by stating:
“I don’t remember when I began singing. About the time I began talking, I suppose.
Never learned how to stop either, and I guess I won’t ever. The first ballet [ballad]
I remember learning was the “Blind Child’s Prayer.” I saved it and this was the real
beginning of my collecting ballads and songs. This was 1905.”
A tornado struck the Riddle’s home on November 25, 1926, and Almeda lost her husband and one child.
“After the cyclone, my two little sons and one daughter and I came back to my father’s
farm in the foothills of the Ozarks. But I always sang the ballads as did they. We all loved
them. I still collected and from memory wrote some down. But until 1949 or 1950 after
the children were married and I had three grandchildren, I never had time to really sit down
and write all I remembered.”
Almeda’s treasury of songs was first discovered by John Quincy Wolf in 1952. He began field recordings of her songs and stories, and word began to spread about this invaluable and untapped resource in the Ozarks. Alan Lomax, the famous folklorist, recorded Almeda Riddle in 1959 and brought her into the world of professional folk singing and lecturing after Almeda’s mother died in 1960. It was always her goal to put the song before the performance. In other words, the lyrics and stories told in the ballads were more important than any showmanship brought by the singer. Almeda spent many years appearing around the country at universities and folk festivals. Almeda also would frequently perform at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, singing her ballads and telling her stories.
Before Almeda passed away at the age of 87 on June 30, 1986, she worked with George West on a half-hour documentary entitled, “Now Let’s Talk About Singing.”
“My goal was to get out as many of the old songs as possible
because people had quit singing them and I didn’t want to see them die down.”
Almeda Riddle’s performances at the Ozark Folk Center can be heard in the recordings donated to the Arkansas History Commission. The book, A Singer and Her Songs – Almeda Riddle’s Book of Ballads can be found in the book stacks at the History Commission. George West’s obituary of Almeda Riddle can be found in the Folk Music Journal Sing Out!, which can be found at the Arkansas History Commission with the journals and periodicals.
The next blog entry in this series will discuss one of the more famous ballads Almeda Riddle performed, “Lady Margaret and Lord William.”