Historical Layers in Her Repertory
The rapid transitions she lived through contributed layer upon layer to her repertory. Songs she learned in the 1930s and ‘40s from her children came to them from 78-rpm recordings. Some of these were polished-up traditional songs from movies with “singing cowboys.” The gospel songs she earlier learned from her father came from tune books like those issued each year across three decades by the James D. Vaughn Music Publishing Company in Tennessee and the Stamps-Baxter Music Company in Texas for “new-book” singings. Almeda must have known the occasional gem and much of the dross from this huge annual crop. She herself pointed out layers in her ballad repertory. Some came from contemporary events. Her father and a neighbor wrote “The Storm of Heber Springs” about the 1926 tornado that killed her husband and baby. Around 1909 she and a friend found a newspaper poem about Allen Bain, a boy in Illinois who had escaped hanging for murder when his supposed victim reappeared. “It had no tune,” she said, “but we couldn’t leave a thing like that go by without singing it. So he and I sat down and figured out our tune. . . . You take kids as full of singing as we were, eleven years old, we could make a tune in a few minutes if we wanted to sing—and we wanted to sing this.” From about 1904 until ’14 or ’15, she said, the railroads were growing and there were “just lots of railroad songs.” When she was twelve or fourteen she “was very much of a fan of the railroads.” To her they “represented all romance,” but she also witnessed the death of a young brakeman who fell under his train. Another brakeman taught her “The Broke Down Brakeman,” and for her the song brought poignant memories of the boy’s death. Another set of occupational songs was about cowboy life. This repertory developed mostly between 1870 and 1890. Cattle drives “used to go through the Indian Nation,” she told Abrahams, “and I guess we learned some of their songs then. We liked them; they appealed to us.” She specifically recalled learning at least one from her father’s uncle Hi James, a cowboy, who died when she was small. She also learned “Cole Younger” and “Jesse James,” ballads about desperados of the 1880s and ‘70s and was surprised to learn when she was thirteen that Jesse was a second cousin of her father, J. L. James. Her husband taught her a song about “Custer’s Last Fierce Stand” in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. And Almeda had an even earlier layer of songs from the Civil War.
Almeda Riddle described certain songs as having been known to her ancestors. One was the children’s song “La La La Chick A La Le-0.” She learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother, who learned it when she was about seven or eight from her mother, who died soon after. That woman had come from Ireland and most likely learned it there. Almeda thought her father’s family must have brought certain other songs from England.
Scholarship rather than tradition, however, explains most of the earlier layers of Almeda’s repertory. Twenty-two of the songs—including several already mentioned—are among those cataloged by G. Malcolm Laws in his Native American Balladry (1950;1964). A few of these are based on events or figures of the colonial and later periods in America. Most simply reflect themes that came into popularity across the decades. A smaller number of songs—eight—are in Laws’ other catalogue, American Ballads from British Broadsides (1957). These date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They mostly tell stories of love—the comic or tragic or loyal loves of commoners, a pretty fair maid and a soldier, sailor, butcher boy, or weaver. Even older songs in Almeda’s repertory are ones that the Harvard scholar Francis James Child canonized in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898). She knew seventeen of these, all but one or two in remarkably full versions. Five of these ballads that date to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries are loosely historical, but mostly focus on the love sorrows of lords and ladies. The rest retell international folktales. A few that scholars trace to the late Middle Ages are the oldest songs she knew.