Honoring Lesley Riddle

Lesley Riddle was born in Burnsville, NC in 1905. Later he lived with his grandparents in Kingsport, TN, where he met A.P. Carter. The two men struck up a partnership in the 1930s. Together they would travel around the mountains collecting songs, which the Carter Family would later record. Today music historians look back on those early recordings as the birth of country music. Mother Maybelle Carter, now considered one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, praised Lesley for his playing and said she learned some of her blues guitar techniques from him. Lesley often stayed at the Carter home when he was working with the family. He moved to Rochester, NY in 1942 and gave up on a career in music. In the 1960s, folklorist & musician Mike Seeger (who learned about Lesley from Maybelle) sought him out and recorded many of the songs that later became the album Step By Step: Lesley Riddle Meets The Carter Family.

Lesley Riddle in the 1960s
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 an 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, NY and eventually gave up playing music. Folk music historian Mike Seeger learned about Lesley Riddle from his work with Maybelle Carter. Seeger encouraged him to start playing music again. Lesley appeared at several high profile folk festivals in the 1960s. Seeger also made many recordings over the years. In 1993, those recordings 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 in the 1930s. 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 guitar parts. After returning from the trip, they would reconstruct the songs and work on the arrangements with Sara Carter and Maybelle Carter. Later, the Carter Family recorded the songs. Maybelle gave much credit to Lesley’s finger-style blues guitar playing. It was during their time together that the family 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