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Remembering Musician Lesley Riddle During Black History Month

Story from the NC Arts Council

A young African American blues musician and the “first family” of country music may seem like strange bedfellows, but the partnership between Lesley Riddle (1905–1979) and the Carter Family had an extraordinary impact on American music.

As we celebrate Black History Month and the abundance of African American musicians, writers and artists in North Carolina, we salute Lesley Riddle. Riddle will soon be honored with a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker to be erected west of Burnsville on Highway 19.

Riddle, who is credited with teaching Maybelle Carter her trademark guitar techniques, is also celebrated by an annual festival, Riddlefest. Created by the Traditional Voices Group, this year’s event is scheduled Friday, July 3 at the Parkway Playhouse and will feature David Holt, accompanied by Josh Gofoth.

Lesley Riddle was born June 13, 1905 in the Silvers Gap community, north of Burnsville. Before he entered his teens, his parents, Ed and Hattie, separated and Hattie took the three children and moved to Kingsport, Tenn. The Riddle family would move back and forth between Burnsville and Kingsport several times over the next 20 years.

When he was in his mid-teens, Lesley had an accident at a cement plant and ended up losing most of one leg. The handicap gave him a lot of down time, which he spent learning to play the guitar, mostly blues and gospel songs. (He later lost two fingers in a shooting accident.)

A.P. Carter, the Carter family patriarch, first heard Lesley play guitar and sing on the streets of Kingsport. At the time, A.P. was under pressure to find new material. With Lesley, he found the solution to his song quest.

He brought Lesley home to sit and play for A.P.’s wife and sister-in-law, Sara and Maybelle. They heard urban and rural blues in the style of Blind Boy Fuller and spiritual music from the African American churches of Appalachia. Soon after, A.P. asked Lesley to take him to African American communities all over Appalachian Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina to find new songs for the Carter Family band. [Lesley Riddle_gravesite]

Lesley would memorize the tunes and words before returning to the Carters and then teach the songs to Sara and Maybelle. The number of songs the Carter Family learned from Lesley will never be known, but without a doubt the Carter Family songbook, and that of country music, is much richer for their relationship with Lesley.

While the relationship between Lesley Riddle and the Carter Family, A.P. in particular, is almost certainly not unique, it is one of the few documented cases of a rural black musician from this time period interacting so closely and personally with a popular country music artist. In this regard, Riddle stands as an important figure in North Carolina music history.

Riddle is featured in the guidebook Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina.