Thursday, July 30, 2020

Family finds healing through folk music

By Brian Irby, archival assistant

Music is a form of communication. Human beings living in caves used flutes to convey something about themselves or about their world. They combined melody with poetry, resulting in traditions that would evolve through the centuries, but would remain in its simplest form, music. An example of this tradition can be found in the life and career of Almeda Riddle and how her family preserved painful memories of a storm that destroyed their world on Thanksgiving night in 1926.

On Nov. 23, 1926, in the town of Heber Springs, families were gathered around dinner tables to enjoy each other’s company and to eat delicious meals. At about 5:30 that evening, the clear sky suddenly turned overcast and began to rain. Fifteen minutes later, the emerging storm grew in intensity, spawning a tornado that quickly ripped through town.

The tornado left in its wake heavy winds and a deluge of rain. The wails of those trapped in their houses added to the hellish sounds. Those who were not trapped worked to free their neighbors. People emerging from the storms staggered about the town looking for missing loved ones or searching through the rubble.

In the end, the tornado killed 21 people and wounded more than 55. Every house in the town was damaged in some way, leaving survivors huddled in tents as protection from the cold rain. Among those killed were Price Riddle, a factory worker, and his infant child. The Riddle family had just returned home after enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner given by the factory where Price worked. His wife, Almeda, and surviving children, Clinton and John, were badly injured. They were taken to the hospital where they stayed for four months while they recuperated from their wounds.

Weeks later, Riddle and her two sons were able to leave the hospital. Since their house was destroyed, the family went to live with her father, J.L. James. Riddle and her father shared a similar hobby, collecting folk songs. Music was in their blood, and they often sang together old ballads (or as they called them, “ballets”) that told of life in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.

Years later, Riddle fondly remembered her father’s love of music, “My father sang every morning when he got up; he sang from a songbook. Every time a new songbook came out, he wanted it. It didn’t matter what company put it out, or what song.”

Riddle inherited her father’s passion. “I knew my notes before I knew my letters,” she recalled.

Additionally, they both were fond of writing their own songs. As she was living with her father, Riddle heard him faintly singing a song to himself that seemed to refer to the devastating storm that had so upended his family in Heber Springs. Whenever she heard him singing this song, she tried to avoid him.  

Unfortunately, the storm destroyed her collection, but Riddle soon began to collect songs again. Her collection of songs came to the attention of John Quincy Wolf, a Batesville-raised folklorist teaching at Southwestern College (today known as Rhodes College) in Memphis, Tennessee. He found that many of the songs that Riddle sang and collected were directly descended from songs sung in the British Isles, providing a direct link between songs that went back centuries and had been preserved in the Ozark Mountains.

Almeda Riddle and Uncle Absie Morrison
at the Ozark Folk Center, 1965.
In the 1950s, folklorist Alan Lomax learned of Riddle and in 1959 traveled to Heber Springs in order to record her and some of the ballads that she had collected. Thanks to these recordings Riddle’s songs became well known and were often sought out by college students inspired by the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, she toured colleges across the country, singing the ballads that she had spent her life collecting. Younger folk singers and fans of the art began calling her “Granny” Riddle. At times she shared the stage with rising stars, like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

Around the time that she became famous in folk music circles, Riddle’s mother passed away. When she was going through a box of knickknacks, Riddle found a manuscript, written out in her father’s hand. On it was the song that her father had written about the tornado that killed her husband and baby. The song was titled, “The Storm of Heber Springs, November 25th, 1926.” James had set the lyrics to an old tune. The song began by describing the shock and devastation that wrecked the town:

‘Twas on Thanksgiving Day
The town of Heber Springs
Was visited by a cyclone
And partly swept away.

The song he wrote carried on a very long tradition, one that had been practiced for centuries all around the world. It is a reminder that human beings are compelled by their very nature to reflect the world around them in art. Almeda Riddle and her father, J.L. James, were a part of that tradition.