When the poet said, “No man is an island,” I believe he meant that while our efforts lead to our successes in life, those successes are attained with the help of others. Recently this fact was brought home to us with the hearing of a story that took place during the early days of recorded country music. With that tease, let us tell you about Mr. Lesley Riddle.
Lesley Riddle, better known as Esley was born June 13, 1905 in Burnsville, NC; and grew up with his paternal grandparents near Kingsport, TN. Mr. Riddle was an African-American musician whose influence on the famous Carter Family helped to shape country music in its formative years. Lesley Riddle is considered by many to be one of the biggest contributors to country music as we know it today.
Sidelined To Strings
As a young man, Riddle was seriously injured in an industrial accident. The injury resulted in the amputation of his right leg at the knee. While he recovered, from his injury, he became greatly interested in the guitar and mandolin. His mother’s brother, Ed Martin, played guitar and knew dozens of blues and gospel numbers. Ed taught Lesley some guitar techniques and introduced him to other musicians around Kingsport.
Not long after losing his leg, Riddle became involved in a dispute with his uncle over a shotgun. The gun discharged while Lesley’s right hand gripped the end of the barrel and he lost the middle and ring fingers of his hand.
Because of these missing fingers Lesley needed to adjust his picking techniques to use only his thumb, index and little finger and in so doing developed an innovative picking and slide technique in which he used his index finger to play the melody while he used his thumb to keep the rhythm on the bass strings.
The handicaps did not slow Riddle up musically. Throughout the 1920s, Riddle was a regular in the local African-American musical scene, which included Steve Tarter, Brownie McGhee and John Henry Lyons. He regularly played and sang with small string bands at churches and neighborhood gatherings. In Kingsport, Tennessee in 1928, John Henry Lyons introduced Riddle to A.P. Carter, founding member of the Carter Family country band.
Meet The Carters
Riddle became friends with the Carter family and began to divide his time between Kingsport and the Carter home in Maces Spring, VA. Lesley Riddle and A.P. Carter soon embarked on weeks long song-collecting trips throughout East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
On these trips, Riddle and Carter visited the rural and remote cabins of both Black and White folks living there in the area. The pair would ask these folks to teach them the songs with which these folks were familiar. In a story written about Lesley Riddle for the birthplaceofcountrymusic.org, Jessica Turner said, “With Riddle having lost a leg in an accident and Carter with a constant tremor, the two men stand as an odd couple in the canon of country music history, almost a tragic comedic duo looking a segregated South (and a segregated music industry) straight in the face as they traveled the hills of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia to hear and learn the songs that were being sung. At a minimum, it’s inspirational that the two rambled forth together . . . .”
When collecting these songs, Carter would document the lyrics of a song he liked, and it was Riddle’s job to remember the music. Essentially, Riddle would act as a human tape recorder and memorize the melody of the songs while Carter wrote the words of the song in his notebook.
The pair would return to the Carter home and put the final touches to the songs so that the Carter Family band could have more material to take to the recording studio.
Many of the songs that the pair collected were what would now be referred to as in the public domain as they were just partially remembered songs from generations past. A.P. Carter sometimes tinkered with the lyrics a bit and claimed authorship. In many cases, the melodies that Riddle memorized could be considered as original compositions since they were merely ear interpretations of what he could remember hearing the mountain folks sing; however, he received little credit for his effort.
A writer of Riddle’s biography for the Traditional Voices Group of Burnsville, North Carolina’s Mountain Heritage Center website (Traditional Voices Group.com) had this to say, “Riddle’s participation was a vital part of Carter’s work to collect traditional songs for the record producers he was working with. ‘If I could hear you sing, I could sing it too,’ said Riddle. ‘I was his tape recorder. He’d take me with him and he’s (sic) get someone to sing the whole song. Then I’d get it and learn it to Sara and Maybelle.’ A.P. and Lesley would return to Glade Spring’s and, along with Sara and Maybelle (A.P.’s wife and sister-in-law), rework the tunes into something acceptable to Peer (Carter’s record producer). We can be sure that most of the tunes with A.P. getting the credit as the writer came from these song-gathering trips. Music historians have puzzled for years over which songs the Carters got from Lesley.” Nevertheless, the Carter Family went on to record a number of songs that Riddle either composed or transmitted, including “Cannonball Blues,” “Hello Stranger,” “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome,” “Let the Church Roll On,” “Bear Creek Blues,” “March Winds Goin’ Blow My Blues Away” and “Lonesome For You.” (It is tragically interesting to note that Riddle was not a part of any of those recordings.)
Missing A Finger
As mentioned above, Lesley Riddle’s missing fingers caused him to develop an innovative method of playing the guitar in which he used his index finger to play the melody while his thumb kept the rhythm on the bass strings. This is the picking method that he used to teach Maybelle Carter (guitarist for the band) the melody of the collected songs. As the Carter Family went on to become the first superstars of country music, Maybelle Carter’s unusual playing method created a unique sound for the group that became known as her scratch style of guitar playing as well as became widely known as Carter Family picking. It is worth noting that Maybelle Carter later gave credit to Lesley Riddle for teaching her how to play in this manner. Still, no one knew much about Riddle either before or after the Carter Family became a household name.
When fame took the Carter Family band away from the Virginia hills to far away Texas to star on the megawatt Mexican border radio station, XERA, Lesley Riddle married Allie Rhea in 1937 and moved to Rochester, NY where Allie had family. He soon lost touch with both The Carter Family and music. Although Riddle played a few times with Son House, he soon sold his guitar and quit music all together except for what he did in church. He lived in obscurity there working as a clothes presser, shoe-shine parlor operator and school crossing guard.
Getting His Credit
In the mid 1960’s, the Johnny Cash Show with Maybelle Carter and her daughters, along with Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers, were playing a show in Los Angeles. After her set, Seeger asked Maybelle from whom she learned the song The Cannonball and she told him that Esley Riddle of Kingsport, TN taught it to her. On the trip to the next show Maybelle told Seeger the Esley Riddle story. (In case you are wondering, Esley was a name Riddle picked up when one of Maybelle or Sara’s small children could not pronounce his name. This is the name all present day Carters and many of his own relatives use to refer to him.)
Seeger set out to find Lesley Riddle. At a folk festival, he asked Brownie McGhee, who had played music with Riddle while they were teenagers, of Lesley’s whereabouts, and McGhee sent Seeger to Rochester, NY. Mike found Lesley Riddle there and persuaded him to be interviewed and recorded.
Thank You Pete Seeger
Riddle also accompanied Seeger and the Ramblers to local clubs and music halls to play with them. Seeger got Lesley into some of the more prestigious folk festivals of the time: Newport, Smithsonian and Mariposa. Mike returned to Rochester several times over the next fifteen years to visit. Mike Seeger interviewed and recorded Lesley Riddle on several occasions during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1990s, Mike Seeger persuaded Rounder Records to release a CD of the music they had recorded in Rochester. Of all the songs on the record there is no question of authorship of the title track, “Step By Step,” Riddle was inspired to write this song while watching children walk across the intersection where he was the crossing guard.
Riddle’s wife died in 1976 and soon thereafter, Lesley was diagnosed with lung cancer. He moved to Asheville, NC and lived there with his brother, John Young, until passing away on July 13, 1979. Riddle is buried in Horton Cemetery in Burnsville, NC. A.P. Carter’s children, Janette and Joe Carter spoke at his funeral.
By the time of his death in 1979, Lesley Riddle had achieved some degree of recognition for his contributions to the origins of country music, and efforts are ongoing to give him formal recognition within the Country Music Hall of Fame and official circles. In addition, a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker, located along Burnsville’s Highway 19, honors Riddle’s work in country music. Plus, the Traditional Voices Group annually presents Riddlefest in Burnsville to honor the music of Lesley Riddle.
Leaving A Legacy
His legacy lives on in Burnsville, where he still has family and a loyal base of fans. On July 31, 2009, the Parkway Playhouse of Burnsville staged a production about Riddle’s life, including his time with and influence on the Carter Family. The show featured biographical details of Riddle’s life and presented versions of songs first as played by Lesley Riddle and then played again as the Carters played them. The production was titled, Esley: The Life and Music of Lesley Riddle, and it was written by Jeff Douglas Messer. In the summer of 2015, Parkway Playhouse revived the stage production of Esley with a new cast of actors, but still under the direction of Michael Lilly. Playwright Jeff Douglas Messer is currently working on a screenplay and novel based on the stage script.
Although Lesley Riddle was as talented as his contemporaries, he never made a living at music. He never received credit for the many songs that were certainly his creations or co-creations nor did he receive the credit he deserved for his huge contribution to the advancement and popularity of country music. Hopefully, modern times and sensibilities can raise awareness and belatedly rectify some of this injustice abet as a postmortem. Also, hopefully, the telling of Lesley Riddle’s story will at least raise awareness as a guard against future injustices such as those Riddle experienced.