Notes on Songs in the Film, Almeda Riddle

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Almeda Riddle: Now Let's Talk About Singing

One song in the film Almeda Riddle: Now Let’s Talk about Singing is performed in its entirety, the short last piece, “Time’s Made a Change in Me.” The filmmaker wanted to give a sampling of the variety within Almeda Riddle’s repertory and therefore used only parts of the other songs. All the other songs except one—“From Jerusalem to Jericho”—are streaming, however, online in recordings from the John Quincy Wolf, Jr., Collection in the Lyon College Library. These are recordings that Professor Wolf taped between 1952 and 1970. In them Almeda Riddle’s voice is fresh and strong. His collection is especially useful because it also lets the listener compare in some cases as many as five of her performances of the same song and also compare her style and repertory with those of more than 160 other singers whom Professor Wolf recorded in the Ozarks.

The songs in the Almeda Riddle film are heard in the following order:

“Wondrous Love,” an American folk-hymn text (published as early as 1811) composed to a distinctive ballad tune that has been traced back as far as the 16th century. It circulated widely in 19th-century shape-note songbooks in a splendid setting attributed to James Christopher.

“Go Tell Aunt Nancy,” Almeda Riddle’s re-working of a children’s song more commonly known as “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” to make it, as she thought, a more believable.

“The Golden Willow Tree,” her version of “The Sweet Trinity” or “The Golden Vanity” (Child 286), which tells of a cabin boy who volunteers to sink an enemy ship by drilling holes in its hull but then is left by his captain to drown. The boy chooses to spare his fellow seamen rather than avenge himself upon the captain. The song has circulated in British tradition since at least the early 17th century.

“Amazing Grace,” a hymn text written by John Newton, slave-ship seaman turned minister, in 1779 and published with a folk tune in an American shape-note setting in 1835. Under the title “New Britain” it circulated widely in shape-note books and continues one of the best known folk hymns. Almeda Riddle sings the note names from the seven-shape system of vernacular musical notation (popular after the Civil War) rather than using the four-shape system invented about 1800 to simplify sight-reading for American working-class people.

“Lady Margaret,” or “Fair Margaret and Sweet William” (Child 74), in which Lady Margaret sees her lover ride by with his new bride and dies of grief. Her weeping ghost comes to the foot of his bed and rebukes him. He rises, finds her corpse, kisses the lips, and falls dead. The song closes with the motif of a rose springing from her grave and a briar from his, to tie in a true lover’s knot, the red rose ‘round the brier. A stanza of the text was quoted in a drama published in 1611. Almeda Riddle’s version is unusually full and poetic. Film footage that Alan Lomax shot in 1982 of a strong performance of the ballad by the fine North Carolina singer Sheila Adams currently streams on line.

“La La La Chick A La Le-O,” a sprightly children’s song that Almeda Riddle said had been handed down from mother to daughter in her family from the time of her great-grandmother, who was born in Ireland. Almeda herself sang it to her own great-grandsons. The only other singers to record it seem to be young Brenda Sue Riddle and Virginia Dillon, also streamed from the John Quincy Wolf Collection.

“Lady Gay,” or “The Wife of Usher’s Well” (Child 79). Fragments of the song were reported from Scottish tradition of the 18th century. Almeda Riddle had heard others speak of this as a song about ghosts. Roger Abrahams quotes her as regarding the return of the dead boys as merely their mother’s dream. Taken either way, the song supports her interpretation of it as a warning against excessive mourning.

“Four Marys,” or “Mary Hamilton” (Child 173). An apparently fictional ballad set in the 16th- century royal court of Scotland. One of the Queen’s four ladies-in-waiting has borne a child by the King and murdered it. Her crime detected, she is condemned to death. The song is her lament on the day of her execution. This version sung by Almeda Riddle is unusually full and poetic.

“From Jerusalem to Jericho,” in the film Starr Mitchell calls this “a turn-of-the-century camp-meeting song.” It can perhaps be found in some shape-note gospel tune book. This is the only song fragment in the film not completed by a recording in the John Quincy Wolf Collection.

 “Time’s Made a Change in Me,” a gospel song attributed to Harkins Frye and said to have been copyrighted by the Stamps-Baxter Publishing Company in 1948.