INTERVIEW WITH ALMEDA RIDDLE
Recorded in Timbo, AR April 18, 1970
Click here to listen to the original recording
Riddle: "Well, approximately . . . I don't remember. I remember that I've been singing for fifty-six years. How long before that I don't know. Oh, let's go back a little. Sixty-six years. Sixty-six years."
Mullins: "So we're going to get someone that's really got quite some experience in this type of singing. Where were you born and raised, Ms. Riddle?"
Riddle: "In Cleburne County, Arkansas. Here in Arkansas in Cleburne County."
Mullins: "In Cleburne County here in Arkansas. And who would you say influenced you the most with your music, which you've become quite well known for?"
Riddle: "My father. My father was a singing teacher."
Mullins: "And he just brought it right on down to you."
Riddle: "That's right. My father taught me my notes. I knew my notes before I did my letters."
Mullins: "Very good. Could you tell us something about . . . maybe what you've recorded and just, in general, what kind of singing you've been doing and so forth, just very briefly, if you'd like to."
Riddle: "I do traditional ballads. I like mostly the Child ballads. . . . 'The Four Marys,' 'The House Carpenter's Wife,' and 'The Wife at Usher's Well,' and that type of things."
Mullins: "Okay, thank you very much. We've had a lot of recordings in the past from Ms. Riddle, but today I think we've got something . . . She's going to do a little bit different version of a song than perhaps she's done in the past, and she's going to tell us a little bit about the song, and then she's going to sing it herself. And here's Ms. Riddle."
Riddle: "Well, this song is no different--the version isn't--than what I've always done, but actually there was about thirty or forty, possibly fifty years that I didn't do this song. I had forgotten it. I did do it with my younger sister, who died when I was six years old, and then for years I didn't sing the song. I finally ran across the ballad in an old trunk of my mother's again, and for the last few years I've been doing it. I always remembered the tune of the song, but it is a different version to what I have heard other singers. However, I have run across one old lady at Pangburn that says I learned the song from her when I was five years old--or six, somewhere about that--and I have come across two more people that knew this version of 'The Four Mary's.' See, most of the versions, you see Mary Hamilton really did murder her illegitimate son. (I'm so tired. I've been up so long!) But as we know, there never was a body found. The child's body was not found--we know that--if you've studied folklore, and in the version which I do, the child was stillborn. Then she did cast it into the sea, as Joan Baez's version is, and in some of the Child's versions, I believe. I couldn't tell you exactly; I've read a number of versions. But this one I have never heard sung other than in White County, which I live just on the edge of White and Cleburne County, in Pangburn, Arkansas, and I've heard two other . . . one from Kansas . . . his aunt, that sung this version. Let's see now, we'll try it. I'm so very tired and hoarse that I don't know if I'll get it."
THE FOUR MARYS
Last night there were four Marys;
This night there’ll only be three--
Mary Eaton, and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Carmichael and me.
Last night I washed my queen’s feet,
And I put the gold braids in her hair.
Now the onliest thing it’s ever going to bring
To me is a death full sore.
For word is in the kitchen,
And the word’s all out in the hall,
That Mary Hamilton’s great with child
To the highest Stuart of them all.
He courted her in the kitchen;
Then he courted her in the hall.
Oh, he courted her in the low cellar,
And that was the time of it all.
Mary Hamilton walks and she’s weeping,
Alone by the dark blue sea.
“I’ll bear my Stuart child alone,
And ‘twill be the death o' me.”
And her wee one was stillborn;
Then she cast it into the sea.
“Lie there, lie there; ye are the king’s grandson,
And you'll have no more need of me.”
Now down hath come the old queen,
And the gold braids still in her hair.
“Oh, Mary Hamilton, where is the child,
For I heard him grieving full sore?”
“There has never been a wee bairn here,
As anybody could see.
Oh, it’s just this pain in my poor heart,
And the weeping ye heard, it was me.”
“Then put on your dress of red, my dear,
Or either a black or a brown,
For before tomorrow’s sun shall set,
I will ride ye through Edinborough town.”
And she neither put on a dress of red,
Nor yet a black or a brown,
But arrayed herself in the purest of white,
Yet they rode her through Edinborough town.
And when she walked into Edinborough court,
Now, the heel came off'n her shoe.
‘Twas in the courts at Edinborough
That she was condemned to die.
And it’s little did my poor old mother think,
That day she was a-cradling of me,
These distant lands I’d have to roam,
And the death I would have to die e’en.
(Also found in Randolph, Vol. I, #26.)
Mullins: "Thank you very much, Ms. Riddle. We have one more interesting question we'd like to ask Ms. Riddle. That is how long she's been collecting these ballads, and how just about how many ballads she has now after her long experience in this field. Would you tell us that, Ms. Riddle?"
Riddle: "Somewhere between five and seven hundred, I honestly don't know."
Mullins: "And how long have you been collecting?"
Riddle: "I began at six years old. I am now 72."
Mullins: "And that's five to seven hundred, and you know the words to all of these songs?"
Riddle: "Well, there's five or six hundred of them that I can do, yes, that I still remember. Now I have them written down and taped, but yet I can do five or six hundred."
Mullins: "That's amazing. We thank you for that information, Ms. Riddle. Thank you."
Riddle: "And speaking of the ballads, now here is one that my granddaughter did for Dr. Wolf. You can get that from his tapes. 'The Blood on His Shirt Sleeve.' And I believe now that she called it 'The Blood of the Little Red Rooster.' I believe that's what she called it, and we won't do that, but here is the version that I heard. I think she collected this from Uncle Bob Stark, but here is the way that I remember it as a child that we did it. I'll do one verse of it just a little bit different than the way she did it."
THE BLOOD ON HIS SHIRT SLEEVE
“How come that blood on your shirt sleeve?
Now, my son, come and tell it to me.”
“It is the blood of the guinea gay hawk
That hunted the fields with me.”
“That’s too red for the guinea gay hawk
That hunted the fields for thee.
And how come the blood on your shirt sleeve?
My son, come and tell it to me."
(Also found in Randolph, Vol. I, #6, “What Blood on the Point of Your Knife?”)
Riddle: "Now then, that was the White County version of it, see, and she collected hers here, and sang or learned it when she was about twelve from Uncle Bob Stark, and the tune is just a little bit different, and the words are just a little bit different, just the different areas in which they were sung. Well, Dr. Wolf can tell you all these things. I don't need to teach a class in folklore. I can't do half what he can."
Mullins: "Would the version change from county to county?"
Riddle: "You mean the version of songs?"
Mullins: "Yes, ma'am, I do."
Riddle: "Sometimes they would. 'Barbara Allen,' there is about . . . I have at least seventeen versions of 'Barbara Allen.' In White County they sing it as 'Sweet William,' you know. It's called 'Sweet William' there, and in places in North Carolina I find that . . . In some places it's 'Young Jimmy Grove (?),' and then I've heard it as 'Sir James,' 'Young Sir James.' I have a version of that."
Mullins: "Would you sing a verse of 'Sir James'?"
Riddle: "Yeah, I think we can, if I can remember the . . . Now let's see."
YOUNG SIR JAMES
In London Town, where I was born,
There was a . . .
Riddle: "No, now I'm sorry. This was Scarlet Town. I've got the wrong song."
YOUNG SIR JAMES
In Scarlet Town where I was born,
There was this fair maid dwelling,
And all the youths cried 'Wellaway!'
Her name was Barbara Allen.
'Twas all in the merry, merry month of May,
And the green buds all were swelling,
When young Sir James on his deathbed lay,
With love for Barbara Allen.
Riddle: "That's the first verse of it. Did you want that in its entirety?"
Mullins: "Yeah, that's all right. That's good."
Riddle: "What, 'Barbara Allen' some more? Oh, what we were talking . . ."
Riddle: "But this morning down at Timbo there at the schoolhouse, I ran into the rather interesting fact that . . . There was a man oh, not quite as old as me, but in his sixties, early sixties, I'd say, and was . . . mentioned this tornado in Heber Springs, and he said, ' I wrote a ballad of that,' and he sang me a little of it, and I was in this tornado. My husband and a neighbor was killed in the tornado in Heber Springs. And now he had lived . . . I believe he says he lives in Bald Knob, and then my father, ? James, had written a ballad . . ."
Mullins: "Has there ever been one written about Judsonia?"
Riddle: "If so, I haven't heard it, and I hadn't, you know, hadn't thought about it in some time, and I think maybe that . . . Maybe that's why so many of our folk songs are sad, you think so? Because it has to be some unusual, some sad happening, or something extremely funny? that they write about. You know, just ordinary things are just . . ."
Mullins: "You know, when we talk about it in class, people ask stuff like that, why are these, most of them, so sad, or why do they have a background like that."
Riddle: "Well, it's happenings like that that makes the news."
Mullins: "And then does a person just start singing a verse about that?"
Riddle: "Shut it off."
* * *
Mullins: "This is something that we've been talking about in class with Dr. Wolf, and I would like to get your opinion on it. Where do the tunes come from for these ballads. I mean, how do you make up a tune, you know, like for your ballad?"
Riddle: "Well, I hope I've not made a tune, other than two or three, just something we children had written. Now these tunes, part of them that I do, I got either from my uncle or whoever I collected the song from. Now, I wouldn't know, but they tell me that a lot of the tunes that I do--which this is probably right--are the old Irish (eulian?) pipe tunes. Now I don't . . . The eulian pipes and the war pipes, bagpipes, are two different things. Eulian pipes are small, go under your arm, you know. And they do sing with those pipes. The MacPeak (?) family in Ireland come from . . . Well, I sang with them some in Boston once when we had . . . TV--NET--taped there together, and old Grandpa McPeak, which was then eighty-something years old--and that's been some five or six years ago--told me that the tune that I sing, 'The Orphan Girl,' and several of mine, he tells me that they're Irish eulian pipe tunes. Scotch-Irish, he was Scotch-Irish, and possibly that's right, because the most of these old ones that I do, I got from my mother and her brother and my grandfather and father, and they came from Ireland. They were Scotch-Irish, so possibly he was right. I do know that I've not found many people that could second these on the guitar, and I can't find them--I'm no musician--but I can't find them on the piano. I can't. Now we might have musologists (?) that could do this, but . . ."
Mullins: "Child never wrote the tunes down, did he? He just wrote the words to his songs."
Riddle: "No. No. So I think maybe each individual singer, he sings the tunes he heard. Our tunes are handed down just as the words are, and each area sometimes has a different tune. Most of these tunes are written in mode (?), you know, and in meters. They're old meter tunes, actually. You can't put notes to them."
Mullins: "Ms. Riddle, I was going to ask you. When did . . . I don't think (?) asked you this. When did you first get started in music, and who got you interested in it?"
Riddle: "Well, my father taught singing, and well, he taught music. He taught violin and piano, but didn't much of that, I'm afraid, rub off on me. I never cared too much about it. I can play a little bit, but not enough to . . . I've never been gifted like that. But he taught me my notes. I knew my notes before I did my letters. I don't really remember when I learned the old shape note. I remember when I began to learn the tones, because it takes something to learn the tone, tonality, they called it, and I was ten or twelve years old before I had that conquered, and time and tonality was what they called it then, and I can remember taking that, and him teaching and making me go over and over, again and again and again, and I think that's one reason why that I loved the old ballads and the old (?) tunes. I didn't have to be so careful. I could . . . sort of whittle them around to suit myself."
Mullins: "Yes. Where have you sung at or . . . You know, performed at for people, like you'd, say, tell a few of the places . . . the first place, you know . . ."
Riddle: "I can't remember the first place, because I sung for the school since I can remember. I suppose at the school where I grew up, at Pickens down in Cleburne County. I suppose. The first I remember singing in school was there. But you mean . . . I don't know if I understand your question. You mean the different colleges that I . . . ?"
Mullins: "Well, I was just . . . You know, in general. You've sung, then, at colleges and in schools and places like that . . ."
Riddle: "I've been to NYU, and I've been to Harvard twice, and I've sung at UCLA and at Berkeley. (?) out in California, the colleges through there, and then the University of Illinois and Chicago, and at Southwestern! Which is still my best love. Let me see, I believe I did my first little concert at Southwestern at the schools . . . I mean for the colleges. I believe that Southwestern was the first college, either that or Conway, Arkansas--Arkansas State Teacher's . . . Southwestern was first."
Mullins: "How do you think modern college kids react to folk music itself?"
Riddle: "Oh, I think they react to it like they do people. The things I do, they seem to like. I think we get about what we put into life; you look into a glass, you just see yourself reflected, and I think if we try to communicate with the younger generation, I don't think there's any generation gap between me and the younger generation. I think we older ones build the gap; I don't think you kids do. I know the older people are going to fight me on that, but yet I'm going to say it. And most of them like it. Now, there's some that don't like folk music. There's some people my age that don't care for it."
Mullins: "There's just one more question that I want to ask you. Do you think a lot of these modern songs, a lot of country songs that . . . some of your modern ballads are a sort of a bridge between your old folk songs and the new modern stuff? They're not really called folk, because they're written by . . ."
Riddle: "Possibly. Some of them I like and some of them I don't. Just as . . . We don't all like the same thing. But I like all music, if it's music. Now I do believe there's a difference between music and noise. There's some things they call music, to me is really noise. Maybe it's music to someone else. Maybe what's noise to me is music to someone else, and what's music to me is noise. I think . . . Yeah, you can turn it off. But I dislike intolerance."
Mullins: "Okay. Well, Ms. Riddle, thank you a lot for your time today, and this concludes our interview."