Without music life would be a mistake. ” With this eloquent statement, he expresses the magnitude of what lies at the core of every human being and that is simply our inherent love for music. It is a human necessity that strikes a chord with all of us and always seems to mark every emotion, experience, event, and time period. Music has no boundaries with its interpretations, evolutions and expressions being limitless. When The Riddle Song came to America, it was originally popular in Kentucky, and spread westward with Daniel Boone and his followers.
By the early sass’s, the song was known throughout a large portion of the country. The Riddle Song was apparently a favorite among pioneer children, especially, who loved to pass the long hours of their Journey with riddles and games. These riddles became especially popular with the children, since they could be sung. The Riddle Song came to us from an ancient English ballad, “Captain Widener’s (or Walker’s) Courtship,” which is also sometimes found under the name “Lord Rosin’s Daughter. ” A copy of the ballad was printed in The New British Songster, a Collection of Songs, Scots andOrder now
English, with Toasts and Sentiments for the Bottle in 1785, and it is said that “few were more popular. ” This ballad features a witty man, Captain Waterbury, who wins a lady hand in marriage (or a trip to her bed, depending on the version) by solving the riddles she devises. This story serves as a counterpart for the popular ballad theme in which a clever maid wins a husband by completing riddles. The ballad itself is a very long story chronicling Widener’s courtship, and The Riddle Song is composed of four of the riddles within the ballad.
The ballad air entitled “Captain Widener’s Courtship,” which can be found in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Viol. V) seems to have no melodic relation to the song we sing today. It is shown in this source in the key of E Major, and features the entire diatonic scale, as well as some lowered 7th scale degrees. I have not been able to uncover a “bridge” from the ballad air to the familiar tune of The Riddle Song, but I have discovered that despite its long history, and the great amount of space through which The Riddle Song has traveled, the variations in the song, as we know it today, re surprisingly limited.
Unlike many folk songs, the beautiful melody remains virtually unchanged from written source to written source, and from recording to recording. The words, too, are basically the same, with some minor variations from source to source. Two printed sources, Front Porch Old-Time Songs Jokes and Stories: 48 Great Sing-Along Favorites, and The American Song Treasury: 100 Favorites each feature The Riddle Song in the key of F Major. The American Song Treasury, rather than a simple quadruple meter, shows the song in cut time, which I believe feels the cost authentic.
In these sources, there is only one slight difference in the melodies, found on the word “that” in the second and third riddles of the song. The American Song Treasury shows this word on a C, the college syllable “so,” while the version in Front Porch Old-Time Songs Jokes and Stories show a D, or “la. ” The only other differences in these two sources are a few slight textual variants in the second and third stanzas, which are shown below. The American Song Treasury Front Porch Old- By Collaboratively can there be a cherry that has no stones? How can there be a chicken that has no bone?
How can there be a chicken that has no bones? How can there be a ring that has no end? How can there be a ring that has no end? How can there be a baby with no crying? How can there be a baby that’s not crying? 3. A cherry when it’s blooming’ it has no stone A cherry when it’s blooming it has no stones, A chicken in an eggshell it has no bone A chicken when it’s piping it has no bones, A ring when it’s rolling’ it has no end A ring when it’s rolling it has no end, A baby when it’s sleeping’ has no crying’. A baby when it’s sleeping there’s no crying’.
Upon studying these text versions, it is clear that very little has changed from version to version, and that the main idea of the song has not changed at all. The greatest text variant occurs in explaining the riddle of the chicken with no bones. I imagine that the version about the chicken “in the eggshell” is a slightly more current one, since the term “piping” is not heard often. Another version of The Riddle Song, found in I Hear America Singing: Folk Songs for American Families, collected and arranged by Kathleen Krill, features what I suspect to be a slightly “romanticizes” text variation.
The third riddle in this version, rather than giving a ring with no end, says “l told my love a story that had no end” and responds in the third stanza with, “The story that I love you, it has no end. ” Although this is a very beautiful idea, it does appear to be less authentic than the previously mentioned versions featuring a ring. This version also gives the editorial suggestion Like an opera singer at the beginning of the song (which I believe would sound a little silly with the simple folk melody), and appears in the key of D major, which is much rower than the other versions.
However, the book makes no secret of the fact that its songs have been arranged, and though arranged, it still features the exact same melody as the version in Front Porch Old-Time Songs Jokes and Stories. Perhaps the most instructive way to learn about this and other folk songs is to listen to a performance of the song from someone who knows it as their own, someone who probably also learned it through the oral tradition. I found two such examples of The Riddle Song recorded by Burl Ivies, and Jean Ritchie and Oscar Brand. The Burl Ivies cording from his CD The Wayfaring Stranger features a very simple combination of voice and guitar.
Ivies sets a very easy, free tempo, and allows a lot of rubout, especially at the very ends of phrases. His performance style and rhythms are also much freer than any of the written sources I have found. Rather than straight quarter and half notes, there are many dotted rhythms which sound very natural, and almost extemporaneous, like they might change a little each time he performs the song. Jean Ritchie recording is a very beautiful interpretation including several guitars, accorders, and even the addition of a drum set, which is surprisingly unimposing.
Ritchie also sings in duet with Oscar Brand. In this recording, she sings the first and third stanzas, while Brand sings the second stanza. Both singers then repeat the third stanza together to end the song. This version is interesting because it has clearly been arranged to include several instruments which come to the forefront in the introduction and interludes between stanzas; but they are played very characteristically and do not distract from the beauty of the melody, which has hanged very little.
Ritchie and Brand, like Ivies, sing with a very relaxed and free tempo and rhythms. There are also some slight rhythmic differences in the ways The Riddle Song has remained virtually unchanged throughout the years since it arrived here in America. Rather than changing to accommodate different situations, like many songs which were adapted to fit the experiences of miners or railroad workers, for example, the original ballad was sheared down to include only four riddles whose simplicity and charm have obliged very little editing.