Lesley (Esley) Riddle

Esley Riddle in the 1960s

African American, Music

Lesley (Esley) Riddle


Lesley “Esley” Riddle was an African American Piedmont and bottleneck slide guitar picker and mandolin player, who was instrumental in collecting and teaching songs throughout African American, Appalachian Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina communities. Born in 1905 in Burnsville, North Carolina, Riddle grew up with his paternal grandparents near Kingsport, Tennessee. After the loss of a leg in a work accident, Riddle later lost his middle and ring fingers in a different accident, and tailored an alternative fingerpicking pattern using his thumb, index, and little fingers. Riddle played a significant role in framing the style of what came to be understood as “country music” due to his collaboration with and teaching musical skills to the Carter Family. His expertise in picking the blues and gospel had aligned him with musicians such as Brownie McGhee, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and John Henry Lyons. Through these musicians, Riddle was introduced to Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter, founding member of the acclaimed Carter Family band in 1928. 

Riddle and A.P. Carter spent years traveling together throughout the Appalachian countryside in the segregated South, searching to collect the traditional music that is the foundation of country music. Riddle could hear a composition once, then play it back immediately, which worked in favor of his and A.P. Carter’s collecting. With his unique fingerpicking style, Riddle taught the Carter Family blues and gospel songs he learned, composed, and played with many blues legends. He also taught Maybelle Carter how to play slide guitar utilizing a pocketknife. With Riddle’s instructions for playing songs, the Carter Family recorded numerous popular titles such as “Coal Miner Blues,” “The Cannonball,” and “I Know What It Means to be Lonesome ” and were catapulted into fame. 

Riddle himself was never afforded the career opportunities to be recognized as a peer with the Carter Family. After moving with his wife to Rochester, NY, in 1942, he parted ways with the Carter Family, stepped away from playing music, and sold his guitar. He worked over the years as a shine boy, presser, and school crossing guard. However, enamored by Maybelle’s playing of “The Cannon Ball” on a Johnny Cash show that featured Maybelle and her daughters, Mike Seeger asked where she learned that song. Without hesitation, Maybelle declared “Esley Riddle.” Seeger sought out Riddle and convinced him to be interviewed and recorded from 1965 to 1978. Through Seeger, Riddle also performed at prominent folk festivals such as Newport and the Smithsonian. His journey documenting and teaching traditional music makes him a folklorist as well as a tradition bearer. 

Among Riddle’s recordings are the posthumously released Seeger recordings:

Step By Step – Lesley Riddle Meets the Carter Family. Rounder Records (1993)

Lamont Jack Pearley

(coming soon)