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The "Discovery" of Almeda Riddle

Background and Commentary by Daniel W. Patterson

Almeda Riddle, folklorist Roger Abrahams wrote in 1977, “is one of the luminaries of the folk festival circuit.” But the world outside her community on the southern edge of the Ozarks had never heard of her until 1952. In that year John Quincy Wolf, Jr., a college English teacher raised forty miles to the east, came collecting folksongs and recorded her. (Debora Kodish, in a feminist reading of this first encounter, describes Wolf as triumphant and deeply moved by his “discovery” of her singing and unaware that he had intruded into a day already hectic and exhausting for Almeda Riddle and her family.) Wolf mentioned her to Alan Lomax, who included cuts by her in an album of recordings he himself made with Ozark musicians. Five solo albums followed. Word of Almeda Riddle also reached the Newport Folk Festival, which booked her to perform. Roger Abrahams came to know her too, taped interviews, and edited them into A Singer and Her Songs: Almeda Riddle’s Book of Ballads (1970) and wrote additional essays. Almeda Riddle’s reputation became so firmly established that she received a National Heritage Fellowship in 1983, the second year the National Endowment for the Arts offered this honor. George West and his wife Starr Mitchell--then young folk-revival singers in Arkansas, now an award-winning high school teacher and a state public folklorist/historian, and still singers--had developed a friendship with her. Fortunately they undertook to make this video. By the early 1980s her voice had lost some of the freshness it had in her early recordings, but the film preserves glimpses of her singing and her personality, and it includes the NEA presentation. Almeda Riddle died three years later, in June 1986.

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