The first time I ever met Mr. Lesley Riddle and also, the first time I ever played guitar and sang with him, just happened to be the day after his 69th birthday. He was born on June 13, 1905, and we met on the evening of June 14, 1974.
That evening Lesley Riddle was billed to perform at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse in Rochester, New York. It was a big hangout for the many musicians and people that were just plain savvy about great music and art (many of whom were “hippies”!). I have to tell you next that this date was my most significant night ever spent at that venue.
But let’s go back to the beginning first: Recently, my father had gone to hear Mr. Riddle, an elderly southern country-blues artist, at a big music festival, and he’d not been able to stop talking about it ever since. I’m still trying to recall where he had seen him play, to no avail, but I definitely know he went to that festival because he really wanted to hear him. I was sick at the time, and my mom stayed home with me, so we missed his performance. When my dad came home that night, he was just ecstatic! He couldn’t believe that a musician like this was living in Rochester. He compared him to the legendary blues-picker Mississippi John Hurt, a family favorite – we had all of his records and I had learned to play many of his songs (my two favorites were the “Candy Man” and “Creole Belle”).
My dad could not stop talking about Lesley Riddle, and he also mentioned that he had a direct connection with The Carter Family. I knew all about The Carter Family, especially Mother Maybelle Carter who played the autoharp and wrote “Wildwood Flower,” a song we sang at Tuesday night Golden Link Folksinging Society meetings. Mother Maybelle also had three daughters, including June who was married to and performed with the legendary Johnny Cash. I grew up knowing that the Carter and the Cash families were “country music royalty” and that they played a major part in the history of country music. However, I had not heard of Lesley Riddle prior to this. Not only did I not know then what a significant role he played with the Carters and their music, but I didn’t even get a full sense of his important contribution from the bits and pieces of our conversations over the years after we met. These puzzle pieces would take a very long time to formulate, and then sadly, most of it rose to the surface long after he was gone.
So, the night my dad heard Mr. Riddle play at this previous concert, he had quite a talk with him, and my dad even convinced Mr. Riddle that his daughter – me! – should play and sing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” with him at his next concert at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse on Friday, June 14, 1974. He informed him that my style of guitar picking and the songs we played meshed directly with his repertoire. I guess Mr. Riddle was intrigued, and he graciously accepted the offer from my father. In the years to come, I witnessed just how gracious and thoughtful Mr. Riddle was, so I can only imagine that night he would have said “yes” to anything my father was pitching him on just because he was truly a gentleman. Also, my father had a very “pushy” and somewhat demanding demeanor, and when he wanted to make something happen there was pretty much no stopping it!
In my diary entry for that evening, I wrote that my musical partner “Mark” met us at our house at 8:15pm, and then we all headed out for the Teahouse together. When we arrived, we found out that not only was the Mr. Riddle still scheduled to perform, but he’d also just celebrated his birthday. I remember that night very vividly because it was such a turning point with my music! I remember me, my mom, and Mark taking our seats and saving one for my dad as the venue was filling up quickly. This gave my dad time to go over and catch Mr. Riddle to let him know I was there and had my guitar in tow.
After Mr. Riddle played a few of his blues numbers to a very enthusiastic audience, he called “14-year-old” Nancy Park to please come up to the stage. I didn’t know he would have me up so soon, and I was also shocked to receive such a big reception. I guess it was because my parents had been dragging me to the Teahouse every weekend, and we had gotten to know most of the regulars, plus my weekly Golden Link meetings were connecting me with many of the people that attended the concerts there. This helped to ease my nerves quite a bit because I was among friends. I also couldn’t help but laugh or smile when I saw our friend Larry Scahill, who ran the concerts and as far as we knew the Teahouse, and also Mike Brisson, a quiet and bashful man who ran the sound system.
As I got up on stage, I demonstrated my typical “grace” – the reason why I took dance lessons was so I wouldn’t do things like this – and proceeded to knock over Mr. Riddle’s big glass of ice water all over the stage! I do remember Mike coming up to wipe up the water and get his electrical microphone chords dried off so none of us would get electrocuted! Mr. Riddle just smiled at me and made some type of joke where the audience laughed and that helped to ease the silence and embarrassment I could feel welling up in my face.
When I got through all that drama, I tested the microphone, and everything was fine. According to the notes in my diary, I wanted to impress the audience of mostly strangers mixed in with some of the folks I knew with my ability to play the guitar and sing. (In other words, I had a very strong driving ego at a very young age and liked to entertain and be the center of attention!) My diary entry continued by noting this night as one where I gave the best performance I had ever given in my entire lifetime (which wasn’t all that long…), even better than when I played in the Variety Show at our high school for 250 people! I loved to perform and have folks compliment me on my playing or singing, and so this night just continued to feed my ever-growing ego at the time.
My diary also recorded the memory of Mr. Riddle telling me I did a fantastic job while the folks were still clapping, and then asking me to stay on stage and play along with him as he finished his set with a couple more tunes. I do recall the songs were familiar to me, and our style of playing blended great together. When he finished he told me before we left the stage that he wanted to play together again. I was just beyond excited about that, and the evening proved to be the start of a long-lasting, music-making, enduring and loving friendship.
Finally, that night’s closing performance was local musician at the time (now New Orleans recording artist) John Mooney, Mr. Riddle, and another blues artist (whose name I didn’t write down), and they did two numbers that they called “heart and soul” songs, which ended up being the big hits of the night. There was a birthday cake in the shape of a guitar for Mr. Riddle, which we all enjoyed afterwards. Mr. Riddle came up to us before he packed up to leave, and he said that my voice and guitar playing was fantastic and that, they, my parents, needed to pursue my performing even more in the years ahead. I was ecstatic – and as I recalled earlier, it was probably one of the best nights of my life.
One interesting final note: I have a diary entry from 1975 – exactly one year later to the date – when we celebrated Mr. Riddle’s 70th birthday again at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse, where he performed that evening. Maybe that will be a blog for next year’s anniversary!
*Nancy (Park) Drum has loaned various items from her time with Lesley Riddle to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. We hope to feature these in a special display in the museum later this year. She has also shared some of her stories from making music with Mr. Riddle in an oral history.