Almeda James Riddle, who was born Nov. 21, 1898, in Cleburne County, was educated by her parents and later said her father, who also sang, taught her to read music before she could read words.
Even as a child, she collected songs, especially when her father became a grocer near the local railroad station and she met people from many different backgrounds. Her practice of ballad collecting continued even after 1916, when she married H. Price Riddle while still a teen-ager. The couple had four children
In 1926, a tornado killed her husband and the youngest child. Riddle’s thick songbook of the ballads she had been collecting for years also was lost. For the next quarter-century, she raised her remaining children as a single mother.
In the early 1950s, interest in American folk music was on the rise. A neighbor introduced Riddle to John Quincy Wolf, an instructor in the emerging field of folklore study from Southwestern College in Memphis (now Rhodes College). In turn, Wolf introduced Riddle to Alan Lomax, who in October 1959 recorded her in Greers Ferry. (He recorded several others from north-central Arkansas as well, at the suggestion of Stone County native Jimmy Driftwood.)
Driftwood — whose father, Neil Morris, was among those captured on tape at the sessions — was himself riding the folk wave to stardom at the time with songs like “Tennessee Stud” and “The Battle of New Orleans.”
Riddle recorded several songs for the folklorists that October. Her “Merry Golden Tree” is a tragic tale of a lad who sinks a pirate ship, only to be duped by his own captain. The ballad dates from the 1700s, and was lyrically altered by Riddle — a practice said to be more common among Ozark songsters than their counterparts elsewhere
Another song, “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” was likely composed in the second half of the 19th century, and was recorded by the Carter Family in the 1930s
Riddle also was recorded singing “Down in Arkansas,” a comic ballad: “... Now she is cross-eyed, that’s a fact, but she’s down in Arkansas/She cries and the tears rolls [sic] down her back, but she’s down in Arkansas ...” And, in the third verse, “She was cutting hay while the north wind blows, down in Arkansas/The sickle slipped and it cut off her nose, down in Arkansas/Doctor put it on, but upside down, down in Arkansas/Now when it rains she almost drowns, down in Arkansas ...”
Riddle sang a cappella, and she did not consider herself an entertainer. She said, “A singer should not get in the way of a song, but just stand back.” She was a stickler for the ballad form, which originated in the Middle Ages and continued even with European settlement in North America.
She lived her life in Cleburne and White counties, but Riddle’s 1959 recordings weren’t her last time educating academia. Through the years, she traveled the nation, singing her ballads at universities and seminars at Harvard, UCLA and beyond. Her goal to preserve as many of the old songs as possible for a younger generation was fulfilled.
Almeda Riddle died on June 30, 1986, with no count on the number of historic ballads she preserved — or on the number of lives she influenced.
• “Down in Arkansas”
• “Bury Me Beneath The Willow”
• “Merry Golden Tree”
Last week’s photo that accompanied the “Arkansongs” column was incorrectly identified as being Sonny Burgess. The photo was of Jim Aldridge, a member of Burgess’ band, the Legendary Pacers.
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