Monday Music: “John Henry” played by Lesley Riddle

stepbystepWeek before last we posted about the book The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song,  a graphic novel tracing the history of the Carter family and their influence on American music.  One of the key figures in the lives of the Carter and represented in the book is guitar player Lesley Riddle, an African American folk musician who taught A.P. Carter the song “Cannonball,” greatly influenced Mother Maybelle’s picking style, and eventually traveled with A.P. to seek out songs for future recordings.

As a teenager Riddle was involved in an accident and lost most of his right leg. His handicap, explain researchers, allowed him a great deal of time to work on music, and learned lots of songs around Kingsport, Tennessee. Here’s a short snippet from a wonderful article about Riddle’s life from the Traditional Voices Group

John Henry Lyon’s front porch was a favorite hang out for East Tennessee musicians and others traveling through the area. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sticks and Brownie McGhee, Steve Tartar and others frequented the porch. On a Sunday morning in late 1927, A.P. Carter paid a visit to the porch looking for songs for the Carter Family’s second recording session with Ralph Peer of Victor Records. As Lesley described it, John Henry passed a guitar to Lesley and told him to “play Mr. Carter a piece. I played him a couple of pieces and Mr. Carter wanted me to go home with him right then and there.”

This began a musical partnership that lasted over five years and a friendship that endured for half a century. Lesley would spend as much as two weeks at a time with A.P. and Sara Carter in their home in Mace’s Springs, Virginia. Just down the road lived Maybelle and Ezra Carter. As Lesley would later describe it to Mike Seeger, “I played somewhere all the time. Sometimes, down at Ecks (Ezra), most times at Mr. Carter’s, just playing and singing, that’s all we would do.” Read the entire article here. 

Riddle died in 1980 in Asheville, North Carolina. Years later in 1993 Rounder Records released some of Riddle sessions with Mike Seeger under the name Step By Step: Lesley Riddle Meets The Carter Family: Blues, Country & Sacred Songs. Here’s a recording of “John Henry” from the Smithsonian collection Classic Mountain Songs. 

Lesley Riddle is honored with a festival every year. RiddleFest happens the third Saturday of February in Burnsville, NC at the Burnsville Town Center. More information here.