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Song In Almeda Riddle's Life

Background and Commentary by Daniel W. Patterson

Almeda Riddle was born in 1898—and was a child born to sing. From the first, singing both drew her and enveloped her. Her father—a key influence—sang her to sleep with ballads when she was small. He opened and closed each day by singing from shape-note gospel tune books, his passion. She sang with him. Everywhere he lived he taught singing schools, and Almeda went along. She said that before she could read words she learned to read musical notation, and, like her father, she could write down tunes she heard.

She grew up in the southern edge of the Arkansas Ozarks in the years before the radio. Pianos were too expensive for ordinary people to own, phonographs were rare, and traveling musical shows did not come to her community. For entertainment most people simply sang. Almeda described singing when she visited with friends or walked to school or even worked at home. In one of the many interviews that folklorist Roger Abrahams edited into the book A Singer and Her Songs she told of first learning “No Telephone in Heaven” when she was a child of seven and singing it over and over while she was out with others picking cotton. One man in the group finally offered her twenty-five cents if she “would please just not sing ‘No Telephone in Heaven’ again that day.”

People in the community habitually exchanged written copies—“song ballads” or “ballets,” they called them—of pieces that struck their fancy. Almeda began collecting these as soon as she could read and in her interviews constantly mentioned ballets she begged from parents, uncles, cousins, neighbors, school mates, her future husband, or his preacher friend. She lost the collection in a tornado that destroyed her house in 1926. But one ballet that she later found tucked into a book at her mother’s home gives a direct glimpse of her childhood passion for songs. Her Uncle John had written it for her in 1906, and Almeda said he added in a note that she pestered him until he finally sang her a song. He “promised to write the ballet and give it to me if I would go to bed.”

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