Honoring Lesley Riddle

Lesley Riddle was born in Burnsville, NC in 1905. Later he lived with his grandparents in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he met A.P. Carter. The two men struck up a partnership that lasted nearly a decade. Together they would travel around the mountain region collecting songs, which the Carter Family later recorded in Bristol. Today music historians consider those recordings to be the birth of country music. Mother Maybelle Carter praised Lesley for his playing and said she developed parts of her own style from him. Lesley played with the Carters and many other musicians in his day. He moved to Rochester, NY in 1942 and gave up on a career in music. Several years later, folklorist musician Mike Seeger recorded many of Riddle’s songs and produced an album called Step By Step: Lesley Riddle Meets The Carter Family.

NC historical marker near his grave

The North Carolina Historical Marker recognizing Lesley Riddle’s musical contribution is located on the eastbound side of Highway 19E less than a mile west of Burnsville. The sign reads: Lesley Riddle 1905 – 1979 Old-time musician and song collector. African American, he collaborated with the Carter Family, 1928-37. Grave 1/4 mi. S.

Lesley Riddle’s final resting place is a hilltop cemetery on Windy Hill Road just above the NC historical marker on Highway 19E. The inscription reads:
Lesley T. Riddle
June 13, 1905
July 13, 1979

Lesley Riddle’s headstone
Lesley Riddle’s Music

Lesley Riddle was a known and accomplished musician in his own right. In the picture above, Lesley Riddle (right) plays mandolin with blues guitarist Brownie McGhee in the 1920s. Later in his life, Lesley moved to Rochester, New York, and eventually gave up playing music. Folk music historian Mike Seeger learned about Lesley Riddle from his work with Maybelle Carter and sought him out. Seeger encouraged to him to start playing music again, and eventually made recordings of Lesley at various times over the years. In 1993, those recording were re-released on the album Step By Step: Lesley Riddle Meets The Carter Family.

The Carter Family

A.P. Carter and The Carter Family worked with Lesley Riddle from 1928 to 1937. A.P. and Lesley would travel around the mountains looking for songs. A.P. would write down the lyrics, and Lesley would learn the melody and the chords. When they returned from the trip, they would reconstruct the songs and teach them to Sarah and Maybelle Carter. Later, the Carter Family recorded the songs in Bristol, right on the Tennessee / Virginia line. The Carters gave much credit to Lesley’s finger-style guitar playing. It was during their playing time together that they started calling him Esley, which became a familiar nickname.

Burnsville honors Lesley Riddle’s legacy with the Mountain Heritage Center, home to the Yancey County Cultural Resource Commission, Lesley Riddle Recording Studio, and Traditional Voices Group, which sponsors the annual Riddlefest Celebration with musician workshops and a concert.

In 2009, Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville premiered the play Esley: The Life and Musical Legacy of Lesley Riddle written by Jeff Douglas Messer. The musical production detailed the events of Lesley Riddle’s life and his work with the Carter Family.

Burnsville & Yancey County