Lesley Riddle 1905-1979 (N-14)

Old-time musician and song collector. African American, he collaborated with the Carter Family, 1928-37. Grave 1/4 mi. S.

Location: US 19 west of Burnsville
County: Yancey
Original Date Cast: 2014

Lesley Riddle was a little known but important player in the development of early country music. His status as an African American in a genre that was almost exclusively white makes his life story and accomplishments compelling. Born in Burnsville in the North Carolina mountains, Lesley Riddle was eight years old when his mother relocated the family to Kingsport, Tennessee. In his mid-teens he lost his right leg below the knee in a cement plant accident. While recuperating he took up the guitar. Tragedy struck again when, in a dispute with his uncle over a shotgun, he lost his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. But, as with other artists such as Earl Scruggs, a disability led the budding artist to develop his own technique.

In Kingsport Riddle was a regular player in a circle of musicians (Blind Lemon Jefferson and Durham’s Brownie McGhee among them) who would gather at the home of John Henry Lyons. In 1927-28 Alvin Pleasance Carter visited the Lyons home and struck up a friendship with Riddle. Together they travelled widely, collecting songs. A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin Maybelle constituted the Carter Family, the “First Family of Country Music.” They were key figures in the Bristol Sessions, the “big bang” of country music, held in Bristol, Tennessee, late in 1927. Jimmie Rodgers, who performed regularly in Asheville in 1927, was also part of the Bristol Sessions.

Riddle visited the Carters often and taught them songs that became part of their repertoire, such as “The Cannonball Blues.” In 1930 Riddle wrote “Lonesome for You” for the Carters and gave them rights in exchange for an artificial leg to replace his wooden leg. “Mother Maybelle” credited Riddle with teaching her the “Carter Scratch” technique later adopted by Chet Atkins and Doc Watson. Riddle never recorded with or appeared on stage with the Carters, largely owing to the Jim Crow customs of the day.

In 1937 Riddle married and moved to Rochester, New York, forsaking the music business. During the folk revival of the 1960s, Maybelle Carter related to musicologist Mike Seeger the part Riddle had played in the Carter Family story. Seeger sought him out, made recordings (several archival tapes, some made available on disc in 1993) and arranged for Riddle’s performance at Newport, Mariposa, and Washington, D.C., at a Smithsonian festival. Late in life Riddle moved back to North Carolina and died of lung cancer in 1979 in Asheville. In 2008 a stage production based on his life and music premiered at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.

Bill Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (2010)
Mark Zwonitzer, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music (2002)
Ted Olson and Charles K. Wolfe, The Bristol Sessions: Writings about the Big Bang of Country Music (2005)
Mike Seeger Collection, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
Rounder Records, “Step by Step: Lesley Riddle Meets the Carter Family: Blues and Sacred Songs” (1993)

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