Arkansas music legends to be celebrated at symposium

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The Arkansas State Archives will host a free symposium and folk music concert on Saturday, July 30, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., in the Multi-Agency Complex building behind the State Capitol. The theme of the program is “Heroes of Arkansas Folk Music”—namely, Almeda Riddle, Jimmy Driftwood and Patsy Montana. While “hero” is a word that sometimes gets thrown around lightly, a cursory glance at this trio’s accomplishments is enough to demonstrate that the distinction is well-deserved.

Almeda Riddle was born in 1898 Cleburne County, in the pinprick of West Pangburn, and lived an unremarked-upon life for the first half of the 20th century, privately collecting and singing traditional songs in the way her father taught her. By the time folklorist and “ballad hunter” John Quincy Wolf discovered her in 1952, Riddle had cemented several hundred songs in her cavernous memory. Recordings made several years later by musicologist Alan Lomax catapulted her to the national stage, and she spent the next two decades on the folk festival circuit, sharing stages with the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and singing for audiences hungry for an authentic sound. So great was her role in the preservation of Ozark culture and the revival of folk music in the US that in 1983 the National Endowment for the Arts recognized her with a National Heritage Award, a lifetime honor.

Poor Wayfaring Stranger” performed by Almeda Riddle.

It’s hard to decide which of Jimmy Driftwood’s many legacies is most significant. Nationally, he is known as the author of more than 6,000 songs, several of them chart-busting Grammy-nominated hits; in Arkansas, he was a powerful booster for his home area of the Ozarks and was instrumental in the creation of both the Arkansas Folk Festival and the Ozark Folk Center (where Almeda Riddle played her last in-state show, in 1984), as well as pushing for the Buffalo River to be named the country’s first national river and helping to secure the development of Blanchard Springs Caverns by the United States Forest Service. Driftwood was born in Stone County in 1907, and no matter how widespread his fame became, he never strayed far from home for long.

The Battle of New Orleans” performed by Jimmy Driftwood

To readers of a certain age, the words “I carried a watermelon” will always inspire a wave of cringing humiliation. But just as carrying a watermelon led Baby in “Dirty Dancing” into a new world and onto the stage, so it did for Patsy Montana, born Ruby Blevins in Garland County in 1908. Montana assisted two of her brothers in the same way on a trip to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, which led to a singing gig, a regular spot on a national country broadcast and, in 1935, to the recording of her biggest hit, “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” which was the first million-selling record ever by a female country artist. Montana made more than 7,000 appearances internationally between 1934 and her death in 1996—always dressed in her trademark “Annie Get Your Gun”-style cowgirl regalia.

I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” performed by Patsy Montana

Interspersed throughout the symposium will be performances by the folk band Harmony from Mountain View. Learn more about these heroes of Arkansas music from speakers George West, Charley Sandage and Archives staffer Jeff Lewellen on July 30 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.. The program is free, but registration is required by Monday, July 25. For more information and to register, contact [email protected] or 501-682-6900.