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Almeda Riddle's Views on Songs

Background and Commentary by Daniel W. Patterson

Almeda had her own ideas about the songs she learned from her family and community. Her father, after singing ballads to her when she was very small, wanted her to learn to read music and began singing her mainly the gospel-tune-book songs. Almeda enjoyed those too, but she favored songs that told a story and tried to get them from everyone else. Almeda’s mother knew some of the oldest ballads, but she was reluctant to sing ones she thought risqué. Because “Black Jack Davy,” for example, told of the elopement of a girl with a Gypsy boy, she would sing only “little snatches” of it. Almeda never saw “anything particularly bawdy” in the song. Those things, she said, “happened then and they still do today.” So she got the words from an uncle and sang the song.

Almeda did avoid singing certain songs that brought back painful memories of her own losses. One of these was “Custer’s Last Fierce Charge,” which she had learned from her husband before they were married. She said, “I know all the words, but I never sing it much, though I love it, for it reminds me of singing with him.” She had similar feelings about the Scottish ballad “Mary Hamilton.” She had learned it when she was a very young child and had sung it with a sister.  The early death of that sister had been traumatic for her. For a period of time she stopped singing at all, and afterwards she continued to put “Mary Hamilton” out of her mind. After she entered the Folk Revival circuit, she recalled one stanza of it and eventually recovered her complete text from the elderly woman who had originally taught it to her.

Almeda Riddle also consciously evaluated songs in her repertory. Even as a child, she said, she was always a stickler to have songs “make sense,” to have “reason and authenticity.” Common versions of the children’s song “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” for example, include a stanza  about the old gray goose dying “in the millpond, standing on its head.” Almeda “never felt—not even as a child—that you could drown a goose.” She said, “You can’t drown a gosling, even—I’ve tried it. If you turn him loose he comes out of there swimming,” even a newly hatched bird. So she changed the words to “Down come a walnut and hit her on the head.” She felt free to alter words songs like this one that she used to entertain children.

Songs she regarded as “classic,” however, she would not consciously alter. She knew that minor changes of wording were inevitable from performance to performance and did not worry over them. John Quincy Wolf, who taped her singing some of her songs as many as five different times, wrote that “More than any other singer I know Mrs. Riddle tends to create as she sings—and no songs are completely exempt from change, not even the Child ballads.” He noticed changes in both words and tunes. “To her,” he said, “singing is a creative activity, and in slight and subtle ways she irresistibly makes her songs as she sings.” What Almeda seems to have meant was that she would not willingly alter the plot or meaning of a ballad. 

For her what made a song a “classic” was not its age. It was that the song “teaches something that’s worth remembering, that’s worth passing on.” The lesson of a hymn like “How firm a foundation” is obvious. She found in it a strength that helped her survive very difficult times. She felt that the best ballads—ones like “Lady Gay” (“The Wife of Usher’s Well,” Child 79) in which dead sons rebuke their grieving mother--also teach. She said, “My mother sang that, so it is especially dear to me for that reason—but it does teach that you shouldn’t grieve overlong.”  Grief, she goes on, is useless. “We can never return to the past and it’s best to bury the past” and “not let our tears rot the winding sheet.” About “The House Carpenter” (“James Harris, or The Daemon Lover,” Child 243), a ballad in which a woman abandons her husband and child to sail off with her lover, Almeda said, “I thought that was a terrible thing, this mother leaving that baby. That was the thing that struck me the worst, you know, the mother deserting the child.” Almeda said that even when she was still small she felt “great satisfaction” that the woman in the song drowned and “got her just desserts.”

She pondered why she felt “so strong” with a ballad like “Lady Margaret” ("Fair Margaret and Sweet William," Child 74). It told of a lady who saw her lover ride by with his new bride, died of grief, and as a ghost stood by his bed and rebuked him; stricken with remorse, he rose, kissed her dead lips, died, and was buried with her. Almeda said that “nothing like the stories they tell would ever happen to me personally.” Still, she loved it and said, “I think maybe that our best songs are our ballads. You know, happy things that tell us good news don’t make the papers as often as sad news. And most of the ballads, didn’t you ever notice that, are written about sad occurrences.” She explained, “I have always felt in sympathy with something.” And ever since she first heard the song “Lady Margaret,” she had had “a feeling of compassion for Lady Margaret. These things tell in ourselves. And I guess bringing up compassion is like teaching us, at least about ourselves.”

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