“A traditional ballad is a story in folk song form that is passed down the generations. Although the traditional ballad is at the heart of English-language folklore, the form itself and most of the oldest stories came through Scotland from Norse origins.” Bennett Hammond.
The Dark Side of Almeda Riddle
Many Ozarks ballads have a dark side. Whether they are murder ballads or story ballads of death and natural disasters, or even down-right scary ghost story songs, the folk songs of the Ozark region looked square into the face of darkness just as surely as they looked into the light.
Arkansas singer and songwriter Almeda James Riddle was born near West Pangburn, Arkansas in Cleburne County on November 21, 1898. In 1916, she married H. Price Riddle and started a family near Heber Springs.
Her life had its share of light and darkness; of happiness and heartbreak. On November 25, 1926, she lost her husband and their young baby to a tornado.
“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.”
Consequently, many times the emotions of her life would be seen in her choice of what ballads to sing.
Almeda thought of herself as more of a song collector than a song writer, though, and she believed the songs themselves were more important than the performance she gave. Still, no one can sing these songs without giving part of themselves, and therein is the strange contradiction of Almeda Riddle finding solace in her own life in songs that had origins hundreds of years in the past.
“Lady Margaret and Lord William,” is a sad song of love lost turned into a ghost story turned into a dark death ballad. It is as tragic as anything in Shakespeare. And like other classics, it remains in our culture today. Most people may remember a similar version called “Barbara Allen,” which shares the final verse about the doomed lovers turning into vines in a flower garden. The most beautiful version I’ve ever heard was by Art Garfunkel in the 1970s.
”Lady Margaret sat in her high hall window
Combing of her yellow hair
Leading his bride so fair.
She threw down that ivory comb
Back she tossed her hair
Down she fell to the high hall window
And never more was seen there.”
The main point of the story is that Sir William was of royal blood and Lady Margaret was a commoner. So even though William loved Margaret, he was forced to marry a bride of royalty.
So the Lady Margaret dies of a broken heart, but her story is just beginning:
Now when day was done and night come on
The people all asleep
Lady Margaret arose from her coffin cold
Stood weeping at William’s bed feet
And it’s how do you like your bed making
And it’s how do you like your sheet
There in your arms asleep.
But better would I like my old time love
Were she in my arms asleep
Not weeping at my bed feet.”
William awakes from what he supposes is a nightmare. He has no idea Lady Margaret is dead. He realizes he still loves Margaret more than his new bride, and this passion fills him with guilt and a fear of retribution.
“What an awful dream
I fear it means no good
I dreamed my room was filled with tears
My bride all drowned in blood
My new bride drowned in blood”
Williams rides straight away to Lady Margaret’s house where he’s told:
“Lady Margaret lies in a coffin cold
Out there in the hall.”
William runs to the coffin crying:
Turn down that shroud so fine
And let me kiss Lady Margaret’s lips
In life she oft kissed mine.
Her father took off the coffin lid
Her brother turned down the sheet
Three times he kissed her death cold lips
And fell dead right at her feet.”
Almeda Riddle later wrote, “Another supposition was that if any of the royal blood touched a corpse, they died. That was death. And Lord William knew that would mean his death when he touched her. That’s an English superstition.”
Citations: George West, “Riddle, Almeda James” entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
George West, Obituary for Almeda Riddle, Sing Out! Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, April-May 1986. (pp. 46-47).
“A Singer and Her Songs: Almeda Riddle’s Book of Ballads,” edited by Roger D. Abrahams, Louisiana State Press, 1970.