Yesterday was a special day in Burnsville. Hundreds of people descended upon the Town Center for RiddleFest … a celebration of the life and music of native son Lesley Riddle. Never heard of him? Don’t feel bad; many people haven’t. But perhaps you are familiar with a musical family by the name of Carter. The Carters had a repertoire of over 1500 songs, and Lesley Riddle was essential to the collection of those songs. You see, back in the 1920s, A. P. Carter, head of the Carter dynasty, would travel to remote areas to listen to local musicians sing locally grown songs; he was what was known as a song collector. While A. P. loved to sing, and people loved to watch him sing, he did not have a good voice, or a good ear. A. P. could write down the lyrics but he needed someone with a good ear to memorize the tunes and teach them to the Carter musicians; that someone was Lesley Riddle. It is said that Mr. Riddle could remember any number of tunes after hearing them played one after another in succession. He must have had a heck of a memory.
A. P. and Lesley developed a deep friendship as they traveled around the upper South in search of new songs. When it came time to stop for lunch, A. P. would go in the front door of the restaurant while Lesley went in the back. You see, Lesley Riddle (on the right in the photograph) was a black man traveling with a white man in the segregated South. That took courage. But courage was something Lesley never lacked. As a teenager he endured the horror of a cement factory accident, in which an auger chewed up the lower half of his right leg (it was ten years before he traded crutches for a peg). But his recovery period gave him time to practice the guitar. Not long after this, he lost two fingers on his right hand in a gun accident. As a result he invented his signature picking style.
Though Mr. Riddle was a gifted guitar player and blues singer, he never made a commercial recording. Fortunately, folklorist Mike Seeger had the foresight to make recordings of Lesley performing many of his songs. Seeger sought him out after asking Maybelle Carter where she had learned “Cannonball Blues.” In addition to the music, Seeger recorded many hours of interviews with the musician. Lesley Riddle passed away in Asheville in 1979, after spending most of his later years in Rochester, NY; so it is only because of Seeger’s efforts that we can enjoy Lesley’s music today (http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=1002703). I had the pleasure of hearing a recording during one of the afternoon seminars that were part of RiddleFest. Dr. Barry O’Connell, a history professor at Amherst College and author of a biographical essay about Lesley Riddle, entertained the audience with stories about the musician’s life — stories he learned from recordings of interviews by Mike Seeger. At the end of his presentation, Dr. O’Connell played one of Lesley’s Tin Pan Alley songs. The music was lovely … Riddle’s voice was soft and sweet as he sang “I know what it means to be lonesome …”
Over the course of the afternoon there were two other seminars, both featuring talented and knowledgeable musicians. Dr. Kathy Bullock, director of the Music Department at Berea College (http://www.berea.edu/music/people/kathybullock.asp), had the audience clapping and stepping out syncopated rhythms, as well as singing along in the “call and response” of traditional Gospel music. She led us on a journey from the music-filled villages of West Africa, to the fields of the pre-Civil War South where slaves sang work songs, to modern African-American churches filled to the brim with the sound of spirituals. She also presented a slide show of historical photos to illustrate the timeline of music’s evolution in the Appalachian region. And she sang. Kathy Bullock has a truly amazing voice; she sings Gospel music like the rest of us breathe — it just comes naturally.
The final seminar session was hosted by Blues singer Scott Ainslie, who has a special appreciation of his musical ancestors (http://thundersmouthcd.com/thunders-mouth/scott-ainslie.html). Mr. Ainslie played four different instruments: a one-string cigar box guitar, a five-string gourd banjo, a 1931 steel guitar, and a modern acoustic guitar. Did you know that you can make a guitar with a building? All you have to do is attach a long piece of heavy wire to the side of, say, your house, tack up a couple of wood blocks to hold the wire away from the wall, and voila… you have a very low frequency guitar. Scott’s style of entertaining combines music, history, and stand-up comedy, and he had the audience either laughing or foot-tapping throughout his presentation. That is, except when he played a soft, sustained vibrato on the guitar … you could have heard a pin drop.
On Saturday evening, the Town Center filled up, with people and with sound. We were again entertained by Bullock and Ainslie, both individually and as a duo, as well as by a group who called themselves the “RiddleFest Revue.” The Revue was led by Roberta Whiteside on keyboard, and included the Griffith Chapel Choir, Ron and Minnie Powell, Anthony Hensley, Terry McKinney, and Sergio Cassanego. The nearly three-hour program of Gospel and Blues was nothing short of sensational. Everyone, from the kids to the senior citizens, was clearly having a great time. I especially enjoyed Terry McKinney’s enthusiastic singing and guitar playing … it’s great to watch someone do something they love (http://www.altapassorchard.com/terry.htm).
During the intermission in the evening program, the Traditional Voices Group (http://www.tvgnc.org/), who sponsored the festival with funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council (www.nchumanities.org), held an auction for several baskets of locally made art and local services, as well as a raffle for a handmade quilt. One of the donated art works was a limited edition line drawing perspective depicting elements of Lesley’s life; it was crafted by local artist Rolf Holmquist (www.rolfholmquist.com). The baskets raised a good amount of money for the group, and when they drew a raffle ticket out the jar I was shocked to hear my name being called. So I came home with not only my head filled with beautiful music, but my arms filled with the beautiful fabric of a quilt. What a lovely day.