Almeda Riddle: Now Let's Talk About Singing
FILMMAKER (Over spring blossoms, the lowing of a cow, a garden prepared for planting, and a shot of Almeda Riddle's house with title "Greers Ferry", Arkansas, Spring 1981): . . . you find a key, you tell me and then I"ll turn the machine on.
ALMEDA RIDDLE (Over interior shots at the house, including a picture of praying hands and a plaque depicting Jesus, paired with the text "God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference"):
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
What wondrous love is this, O my soul. . . . Again?
FILMMAKER: Beautiful, Almeda. Just do it like that.
ALMEDA RIDDLE (Continuing the hymn, over shots of companions, including Mike Seeger, and of herself, singing with her right hand held by her ear):
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of Bliss
To bear the cruel cross for my soul, for my soul?
He bore the cruel cross for my soul.
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
(Title) ALMEDA RIDDLE: "Now Let's Talk About Singing" (With a shot of her right hand
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down. . . .
FRANK HODSOLL, CHAIRMAN OF THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS, AT THE HERITAGE AWARD CEREMONY (Speaking into a microphone): Next we recognize Almeda James Riddle of Greers Ferry, Arkansas, for Ozark balladry. (Applause)
VOICE OF NARRATOR STARR MITCHELL (Over title "Washington, D.C., June 1983"): We started this documentary with Almeda the year she was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts. (Over shot of Hodsell walking to Almeda Riddle, who is standing with Bess Lomax Hawes, to present the plaque.) They were paying tribute to her efforts for over twenty years to preserve a nearly forgotten tradition of folksong in America.
HODSOLL (At the podium again, continuing to read the tribute): Almeda Riddle is the great lady of Ozark balladry. She once listed a hundred songs that she could call to mind right then and then added that she could put down another hundred if she had the time. She especially likes the old ballads or narrative songs. Her stock of hymns ranges from the tried and true to the rare and special, and she has recorded some of the most elegant versions known of such classical children's songs as "Frog Went a-Courting"and "Go Tell Aunt Rhody." Granny's singing style, she claims, was strongly influenced by her father, yet it is difficult to imagine a man's voice performing the falsetto leaps, breaks, and decorations that are such an intrinsic part of her singing style. Some people describe her as singing at the edge of her voice. Her singing is not rigidly rhythmic, but she displays a strong sense of pulse. And she is a true national treasure from the South.
ALMEDA RIDDLE (Sitting at home, with Starr Mitchell accompanying her on a dulcimer):
Go tell Aunt Nancy
Go tell Aunt Nancy
Go tell Aunt Nancy
The old gray goose is dead.
(Almeda has been following the text of the song in Abraham's A "Singer and her Songs" and comments on stanzas that could be or have been omitted, and then repeats the stanza.)
STARR MITCHELL CONTINUES THE NARRATION: That trip to Washington was Almeda's last out-of-state appearance. Her music friends had to come to her after that, and for a year we filmed their visits and her reflections. But she was a hard one to get to talk about herself on tape.
ALMEDA: Well, they needed another one there and they just didn't print it.
Go tell Aunt Nancy
Her old gray goose is dead.
STARR: It's the songs, not the singer, that matter, she argued, so the job of telling her story is ours.
ALMEDA (Over views of objects in her house, including a board inscribed "It's too late to agree with me, I've changed my mind" and another that reads "We have done so much with so little for so long we think we could do anything with nothing at all in no time flat."): Well, they just simply have not printed that enough to carry the tune with it. Well, I remember the tune and I remember the words, and I'll sing it and you can tape it as it should be.
Go tell Aunt Nancy. . .
(Fades into lines from a ballad she knows as "The Golden Willow Tree")
. . . lone and lonesome low,
Sailing on the lonesome lowlands low . . .)
STARR (Over her continued singing of this ballad, with first family photographs, then ones of her album covers and with friends in the folk-music-revival community): Almeda was a widow, living with her mother, and caring for her children when the first ballad hunter found her in 1952. To her the songs she sang were simply ones she had learned as a child. To Dr. Quincy Wolfe, an English professor, they were cause for excitement. Some dated back to seventeenth-century Scotland, England, and Ireland. And Almeda's unaccompanied singing style had even earlier origins. Recordings in 1959 by another folklorist, Alan Lomax, soon brought Almeda the first of many invitations to sing on college campuses around the country. At age 62, after her mother's death, she started her new career of "getting out the old songs," as she puts it, in person, in print, and on tape.
(Almeda sitting with George West, Starr Mitchell, Roger Abrahams, and Bill McNeill around a table.) Question: How many records have you recorded?
ALMEDA: Don't ask me. I don't even know. I don't even know how many letters [records] I'm on. Don't really care.
STARR: One of the people helping Almeda preserve songs in the mid-1960s was folklorist Roger Abrahams. With his help Granny recorded over 200 of the songs from her childhood and also published a book of some 50 of the ballads. She and Roger were revising the book at the start of our video project.
ALMEDA (Discussing her father's having taught shape-note singing): He made us learn the round notes, but the shape-notes is quicker read. Yeah, we learned both. But you have to know the. . . .
ROGER ABRAHAMS: Did you learn both the three- and the four- [shaped-note] systems?
ALMEDA (Gently correcting his terminology): Yeah, I did the four-note system and then the eight-note system. I learned my tunes by singing the notes, yes, and anything that I know the tune to, I can put the notes to it. Like that one I's-oh, what was I doing? (Singing the melody of "Amazing Grace" with the note names)
Sol- la / do, mi-do / mi, re / do, la /sol--
Sol -la / do, mi-do / mi, re / sol
STARR (As Almeda Riddle continues to sing the tune with note names): Roger's book challenged the stereotype of traditional singers as uneducated hill people. To the contrary, their "high lonesome style"of singing was learned. Many singers could read music, and in Almeda's case, her own father taught singing school.
ALMEDA (Ending the hymn tune): See, do's your home note. That's what they call major. In the minor la is your home note. (Now begins singing the tune with the hymn text)
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
(Starr begins harmonizing with her, and Almeda says, "Come on boys" and they join in softly.)
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I'm found.
I was blind but now I see.
STARR (Over photos of festival posters and photographs): By the early 60's America's folk music revival was quickly gathering momentum. Almeda and other traditional singers and musicians were appearing on stages around the country. (Over Almeda singing "Lady Margaret was sitting by....") Her music was picked up by a new wave of young performers, and their voices became, as one observer noted, a personal link with history for Americans hungry for their own roots. The folk revival in the cities rejuvenated festivals in rural areas as well, including Mountain View, Arkansas (over footage from the early festival in Mountain View), forty miles north of Almeda's home. In 1968 the festival attracted state-wide coverage, with Almeda one of the featured attractions.
RADIO NEWS BROADCAST (Title: "Newscene 7/ Jim Pitcock" and shots of the local Ozark audience members and Almeda on stage, continuing to sing): . . . Almeda Riddle, a protÈgÈ of Dr. John Quincy Wolfe. Almeda has gone on to great things because her style is so pure and her repertory is so complete. She has performed at folk festivals and colleges across the country and was one of the biggest hits at the Newport Folk Festival.
STARR (Over clippings of newspaper articles): As folk music became newsworthy and the small festivals became big business, promoters and reporters gave Almeda bigger and longer titles. To her chagrin, she went from "Singing Grandmother" to "Ozark Tourist Attraction."
ALMEDA (Sitting with --- on her front porch, with a scrapbook across her lap): . . . that's when I went in to Pangburn and went to work and cut some tapes there and went from there-- and that got the whole mess started. Well, you had asked me about some of the places I've been. And let's begin at the first, and we may not get through it, and just highlight this now, because we've not got that much time before we've got to get in there and make dinner. Now the first program that I did . . .
STARR: The publicity still makes Almeda impatient and triggers mixed feelings about her singing career. The folk revival that gave her personal freedom, the chance to travel, earn money, renew her childhood love of songs, also caused tension at home among family who thought it unsafe and immodest for her to travel and perform. But Granny made her new role of tradition bearer into a mother's duty and kept on singing whenever asked.
ALM EDA AND STARR: (On the porch, continuing to explore the scrapbook accounts of her appearances.) And this is? More Newport. More Ernie Dean. Let's get through them. And what's that? That's about the Smithsonian, says you're going to be at the Festival of American Folklife. That is James M. Morris, yeah. No, that's a thank-you for the. . . . Now, what was that year? That was 67.
STARR: Well, how many years did you travel?
ALMEDA: Well, from 19 and 62 till last year. Count it up. Twenty years.
STARR: Granny you keep talking about all this traveling, and I try to travel just in the state with my dulcimer, and it wears me out. I don't see how you do this.
ALMEDA: Determination. To get the old songs before the- The kids get to begging for them. If you had a child standing there hungry and asking for bread, you'd hand out bread as long as you had bread. And God gave me strength to go, and I went.
(Singing on a stage wearing a bonnet and shawl and keeping time with both hands)
Singing la-la-la chick-a-lie-le-o
Lord, I hope you'll marry me,
And a La-la-la chick-a-lie-le-o
(Points to a lap baby kicking its leg in time to the music.) Come on, sing it, baby. She's keeping time. Come on-watch her do it.
Now you quit keeping time, and I quit singing. I was going to your time. Here's an old, old song. I learned it from my mother as a child. Some people call it "The Wife of Usher's Well," and "Lady Gay," and many names. But anyway it's very old. I think about the sixteenth century, I'm not sure about that. (Humming to get the pitch and tune) I haven't done this tune in twenty years, I don't think. (Over shots of members of the outdoors audience)
There was a little lady gay
And children she had three.
Sent them way out to the north summerie
For to learn their grammaree.
And they hadn't been gone but about two weeks,
I know it wasn't three,
When death grim death came over the land
And swept those babes away.
What do you think that mother will say. . . .
STARR: Though children's songs were part of her family tradition and though she includes them in concerts still, Almeda prefers to sing the older narrative ballads. Even rare children's songs like "La la la chick-a-la-le-o" from a British nursery song are simply entertainment.
ALMEDA (Cutting and pinning fabric in her lap): Now you pin your pattern right down like that, and then you can cut right to the pattern. Now you can cut in a way that you're saving with your material, and you can waste an awful lot of material in wasteful cutting. I believe this is what I'm using. . . .
STARR (On the porch): Well, I want to know more about your first songs-how did you learn them? how did you put them in your memory?
ALMEDA: Here's your pin. Well, I don't know how I kept them in my memory. Now, I've been asked that a hundred times on a dozen different cameras and by a lot of people, some older and some younger than you, and I don't know why I remembered the songs. I guess because I liked the songs and a lot of other stuff I didn't. Now this "Four Maries"-I forgot that for a number of years, I guess forty years. My sister and I learned that before she died. And she was nine years old. And I never sing the song anymore because of the trauma of losing her. I slept with her.
STARR (Over shots of their continuing to cut cloth): To questions of age and origin folksong scholars have added questions of meaning. Why is the song important to its singers? Why do they keep singing it? Almeda doesn't ask these questions, but her memories surrounding the ballad of "The Four Maries" show that each song has a personal as well as a musical history that gives it meaning to the singer.
ALMEDA: They told me, when I'd ask where she was, they had told me she went to Heaven. Well, they took me to the funeral, and I've never been brilliant, but I never was just downright stupid either. And I saw them bury her. I knew that she was-and I just couldn't believe. And it was for weeks-Mother said that I had, almost had a complete nervous breakdown. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't sing, I couldn't do anything but think about them putting my little sister in the ground. And so I went out to a little cedar tree-that's the first time I ever remember trying to pray. And I went out to a little cedar tree in the yard where we had had our play house, and so I knelt down and prayed--I guess the most earnest prayer I have ever prayed, probably. For Him to, if she was in Heaven, to let me see her. Now whether it was imagination, or what not, I don't know. But for Him to open up the clouds and let me see her. Now then, it could have been that it was a figment of my mind, and people can believe what they want to believe. I know what I believe. It seems I could see her with that yellow hair. She had beautiful golden hair. It wasn't red. It wasn't red hair, it was a golden. And when the sun shone on it, it just looked like gold. It was long-came way down to her waist. And it seemed that I could see her with her white dress on and that golden hair, on that cloud. And I have believed in God and eternity from that day on. If I ever had regeneration it was there, under the cedar tree, by myself. It wasn't at some big meeting or somewhere where the preacher was preaching. It was just between me and God. And I don't believe in women preaching, so I won't go into that. But that's the way I still have to do it when I get comfort. I've hit the bottom several times in my life. But it has to be just me and God. Somebody else can't, can't do it for me. And that's just the way of "The Four Marys."
Last night there were four Maries,
And tonight there'll only be three-
Mary Eaton and Mary Seaton
And Mary Carmichael and me.
And last night I washed my queen's feet. . .
STARR: On the stage Almeda keeps her history separate from the songs, however important or instructive that seems to some of us. You keep yourself out of the songs, Granny insists, the same that you keep performance out of the singing.
ALMEDA: You don't perform a sad ballad like "The Four Maries." You just get behind it, let them see Mary Hamilton walking down to the seashore to have a baby, all alone. Just present it. Let them see the portrayal. Let them see the suffering that you're trying to portray. If you get behind it, they'll see it. If you get in front of it, they just see you and get disgusted.
Twas there in the court at Edinburgh
That she was condemned to die.
FEMALE NARRATOR: Almeda, when did you start noticing changes in the music and the singing?
ALMEDA (Over shots of people at the folk festival): I'd notice the change gradually, come on gradually, getting away from the old style of singing. Elvis Presley was the first that I noticed really. Elvis was a good boy. And I guess I might have liked him all right, but I never cared for Elvis Presley's style of singing. . . . So, then they had to do all that performing, and that got them away from ballads. So, performance took over music. (Over shots of Starr and Almeda on the porch at her house) I didn't notice too much of the changing because I was too busy with plowing and picking cotton or hoeing or canning or doing something. Just scratching to make a living for the three kids and keep them in school.
STARR: Granny, were you singing during this time?
ALMEDA: Sure, I sang. I sang to keep my sanity sometimes. I plowed and when I'd get to wondering, just how especially that year, I was going to get through (that wasn't the only year-a lot of times) and I'd think of "How firm a foundation"-He promised never to forsake us-and I'd sing that song. And then I'd think of some other song. Pretty soon my mind would be off of the hard times.
STARR: Even if it's a sad song?
ALMEDA: Oh, I don't think there is any sad songs, there's just songs that make some people sad.
STARR: As important as her singing career has been to Almeda, conversation off stage often comes back to her first job, raising her three children in the Depression as a widow. Her husband, Price, had died after injuries from a tornado, Thanksgiving Day, 1926.
ALMEDA: I can cry, if I'm touched enough, just so much, but if it hurts too deep-I never shed a tear after that tornado until after I come home and went to Price Riddle's grave. Not one tear. I couldn't cry. Honey, they never allowed me to see him. He lived four days in the same hospital I was, but I had that borderline gangrene, and he was dying of it, on his leg, and they never even let me go in the room where he was. He only lived four days. The baby died in my arms, that night. Now let's talk about singing. Those things are gone. And the Lord helped me through, and as I firmly believe, that what time I've got here, that He's going to go-and when he gets ready, as I told you at the table, for me to stop, He'll stop me.
STARR (Over shots of Mike Seeger, with his autoharp, and Almeda rehearsing): Health problems have largely ended Almeda's travel, except for programs at nearby Mountain View, singing is again her private tradition. But a visit from Mike Seeger, an early and close friend from the festival circuit, brought Almeda out for a joint appearance at the Folk Center in Mountain View.
ALMEDA (To Mike): I've got to get out there, and you're getting out there too, because you're going to back me up.
ALMEDA: You may not know it yet, but that's the way it is.
MIKE: That just means so much to me, to sing that with you. That's incredible. That is incredible.
ALMEDA: You know, Mike and I have been singing twenty-one years together. When we've run across, our paths has crossed. . . .
MIKE: And recently I've been coming to visit you more.
ALMEDA: To visit me after I got unable to travel so much. I'm not old. I'm just tired. I'm eighty-five years old. But I'm just tired.
STAGE ANNOUNCER: Let's get Mike Seeger out here and have him do one of his songs with Almeda. Mike.
ALMEDA: . . . familiar. You've heard that story, haven't you? Well, they came up here in the hills of Arkansas. And they had this hog's head that was cooked-and people used to cook them-so they put it on the table, every day, every day for about three days. And finally, one of the old characters looked over, and said, "Sam, you're beginning to look familiar." (Laughter)
MIKE: Well, I appreciate that, one way or the other.
ALMEDA: Okay. Let's get serious now. And (to audience) listen to this. And who is the neighbor?
From Jerusalem to Jericho a thoughtless man did go
Thinking only about himself and on the things of earth below. . .
(STARR: "I never cared for a song," Almeda told Roger Abrahams, "that didn't tell a story or teach a lesson." "Jerusalem to Jericho," a turn-of-the-century camp-meeting song, does both for Almeda.)
Then who, tell me who? . . .
(This hymn and the next song Almeda did, written in the 1940s, are practically new, compared to her oldest songs. But she can use them, so she sings them.)
And many are the wounded ones that lie beside our way. (Thank you.)
STARR: Almeda once told a reporter, to explain why she occasionally forgot a verse of one of the three hundred songs she knew, that tools get rusty if you don't use them. Songs are Almeda's tools-for learning history, soothing babies, pondering morals, calming herself, making sense of things.
ALMEDA: I will have my say. But I've wondered many times when I sing that song-I don't know if I'm a good neighbor or not. I've let things-how often somebody that's what the world calls, oh, debris maybe, maybe people that their morals are not even what we call respectable-if we let them lay and don't try to help them. I've wondered about that. I'm just as guilty, I guess, as the next one. But in my eighty-five years I've seen a lot of it. The people that was like the letter "p" they was first in pity and they's last in help. Thank you.
(Comes back out to the microphone) This is real short, and time's running out, and they may even be a tornado outside-I don't know. But a little of this-
Time's made change since my childhood days.
Most of my friends have passed away.
And there's more in this world that I never will see.
But time's made a change in me.
Now time's made a change in the old home places
I can see the change in the smiling faces
But I know, my friends, that you can see
That time has made a change, a big change in me.
Now when I was young, I was young and I was strong.
I could climb these hills the whole day long.
But I'm not what I used to be,
Since time and age has laid a hand on me.
Time's made a change in the old home place,
I see the change in the smiling faces,
And I know, my friends, that you can see,
What time and age has done for me.
Now thank you, and I'm gone.
God bless you.
This program made possible by funds from
the Arkansas Arts Council
and the Folk Arts Program
National Endowment for the Arts
Written and produced by George West
Edited by Cary Pollock
Narrated by Starr Mitchell
Camera by Cary Pollock, Willie Allen, Dave Parker, George West
Special thanks to Roger Abrahams, Mike Seeger, Bill McNeill, Debora Kodish, and Almeda Riddle's Family
Almeda's appearance at the Ozark Folk Center was her last presentation
on stage. In December 1984, she moved to a nursing home in Heber Springs,
An album of her favorite hymns was released in September, 1985,
and the revised edition of her ballad book by Roger Abrahams and Debora Kodish
was completed in the fall of that year.
STARR (Voice over as the words above scroll down): Granny, that reminds me of what you were saying before about your goals, that your goal was to. . . .
ALMEDA: . . . get as much of the old tunes, the old ballads, and the old songs out as possible. Because people have quit using them, and I don't want them to die down. That's what I told you, isn't it?
The screen is black for some time. Then the following two scenes, apparently unused outtakes, appear in the video version provided to Folkstreams:
STARR (over shot of Almeda, dressed in white bonnet and shawl, on the festival stage at Mountain View): . . . payment to her, not food for thought like hymns or ballads.
ALMEDA (with voice-over continuing as Almeda singing "Lady Gay," and gently beating time with her hands): -- well, they wouldn't be interesting if there wasn't some history to them. I might hear a beautiful song today that had been written yesterday, and something like they do out at Nashville, and they might sing it a little while, but it wouldn't interest me, and in a little while it would fade out. These things that have come down orally over the centuries had to be the cream of the crop or they'd have died out a long time ago.
All in the early dawn.
And what do you reckon that mother will say
When she wakes and finds they're gone?
I cut a couple of verses from the middle of that. Too long. But I still wanted to do it. And thank you for your patience in listening to it.
ALMEDA (over a shot from inside the house, through the open door, of Almeda and Starr in silhouette as they sew together): Now the way I do that, and this was the way my mother taught me to do it- (Outside, Starr and Almeda on the porch, sewing.) My mother pieced some beautiful quilts. And she taught me to piece quilts. And I loved it. I love to piece quilts. She taught, my mother taught me to crochet. She taught me to knit. She taught me all the girls' work. [abruptly ends]