El Watson and the Ghost of Esley Riddle

By July 28, 1927, the Bristol Sessions were looking like a bit of a dud.  Ralph Peer had been recording for three days, and though he’d heard some good music—most of it from Ernest Stoneman and his friends and family in various combinations—he hadn’t heard anything that sounded like a game-changer for Peer or for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

It would be another few days before the Carter Family showed up at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building, and it would be a week before Jimmie Rodgers stepped up to Peer’s microphone.  Peer couldn’t know what would come of those late-session recordings, however, and as of July 28 things weren’t going well.  He had already struck out in recording sessions in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans, and Bristol was looking like more of the same.

When El Watson showed up that evening it didn’t change Peer’s outlook.  Watson arrived at 5:30 p.m. and left at 6:40, having recorded two songs, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues,” accompanied by guitarist Charles Johnson of the Johnson Brothers. Peer liked Watson and his music, enough that the next year he paid to bring Watson to New York to record four more songs, but he wasn’t under any illusion that the next big name atop the pop charts would be a harmonica soloist … who happened to be black.

Watson’s presence at Bristol, as the only African-American artist recorded in the 1927 sessions (a duo called Tarter & Gay would participate in the 1928 sessions), is both interesting and resonant.  Peer doesn’t seem to have thought there was anything remarkable about recording a black musician amid a series of white musicians (the suggestion that Watson’s after-hours recording appointment was meant to keep his participation quiet is absurd—Peer routinely worked into the evening, with the Carter Family working until 9:30 p.m. and the Tenneva Ramblers until 11 p.m.), and apparently he treated Watson with the same courtesy extended to everyone who recorded.  The session sheet identifies him as “Watson, Mr. El,” an honorific which a black man wouldn’t routinely have expected in the South in 1927.

Very little is known about Watson beyond his two sessions for Peer (and another, under a different name but probably the same man, at the 1928 Columbia sessions in Johnson City).  Rudimentary details such as when and where he was born and when and where he died are unavailable.  No photograph is known to exist.  If he hadn’t been at the Bristol Sessions, hardly anyone would take notice of his existence.

That would be a pity, though.  Beyond Watson’s formidable skills on the harmonica (check out “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues“), his presence at Bristol is packed with symbolic consequence.  Country music, as it was going to emerge in the next few years as a commercial form, would be a fusion of the white tradition of the mountain ballad and the African-American tradition of the blues.  The singers who would dominate that form would be white, but they would be heavily influenced by black musicians—the most influential of them all would be Jimmie Rodgers, who had grown up steeped in the African-American music of the Mississippi Delta, often worked with black instrumentalists and was a blues singer in all but name.  That there should be a black man in the room in Bristol, playing lead and backed by a white guitarist, is altogether right and proper.

Watson also serves as a proxy for the black man who really ought to have been there, but wasn’t:  Esley Riddle.

It’s a commonplace to describe the Carter Family as representative of the white, mountain-ballad element of country and Rodgers as representative of the black, blues element, but the reality is less cut-and-dried.  Rodgers was white and, though he loved and recorded many traditional blues songs, he also loved sentimental Victorian parlor ballads and recorded plenty of them.  As for the Carters … well, that brings us to Esley Riddle.

Lesley Riddle (1905-1980), who preferred to be known as “Esley,” is a well-known name to Carter devotees.  He was a black musician who lived in Kingsport, Tenn., and became a close friend of A.P. Carter in 1928. By Riddle’s account, they met in Kingsport and Carter was so fascinated by him and his music that he invited Riddle to come back home with him to Mace’s Spring, where he stayed for about a week.  He famously accompanied Carter on song-collecting trips through the mountains. This can’t have been easy on Riddle, who as a young man had lost a leg at the knee in a factory accident, but his uncanny ear for music enabled him to serve as a “human tape recorder” for Carter, who of course couldn’t read or write music.


Esley Riddle in the 1960s

That service he undoubtedly did provide, but it has been overemphasized in many accounts of the Carter story.  It makes Riddle seem like a glorified secretary to A.P.  In reality two other contributions Riddle made to the Carter legacy are far more significant, and make him clearly the most important figure in the Carter story other than A.P., Sara and Maybelle themselves.

For one thing, Riddle’s presence surely gave A.P. entry into black homes and, thus, access to many songs that he otherwise might never have heard.  In the segregated South, and especially in the remote areas which Carter and Riddle favored, the arrival of a lone white man at a black home would have been unlikely to lead to anything useful.  Even if they could be convinced that he wasn’t a lawman or a criminal, a black family would have been wary about letting him come in and relax with them to sing old songs—only slightly warier than a white household would have been to welcome a lone black man.

Presumably, when Carter and Riddle approached a home, Carter would go first if it was a white household, while Riddle hung back until Carter had won admission to the house; if it was a black household, it would be Carter who hung back while Riddle talked to the family.

The value of that function can be seen in a host of Carter Family songs which derive from African-American sources and almost certainly were picked up from black families: “Worried Man Blues” (1930), “Lonesome for You” (1931), “Cannonball Blues” (1935) and “Bear Creek Blues” (1940) among them, as well as numerous songs associated with the black church.

It’s worth noting that the songs the Carters recorded in 1927 and 1928 are almost entirely folk songs and parlor ballads. The African-American influence on their music is not pronounced until after 1928, when Carter and Riddle began traveling together.  If the Carters are, rightly, regarded as pioneers in an art form that is a fusion of white and black musical traditions, Esley Riddle surely deserves much of the credit.

Even that, though, does not exhaust Riddle’s importance to American music.

Maybelle Carter’s influence as a guitarist can hardly be overstated.  Spread far and wide via recordings such as “Wildwood Flower” (1928), her famous “Carter scratch,” a fingerpicking style in which the melody is played on the bass while the treble strings play the rhythm, exerted a powerful influence not only on subsequent generations of country guitarists such as Chet Atkins, Joe Maphis, Grady Martin, Willie Nelson and Leon Rhodes, but also, through them, on early rock guitarists such as Chuck Berry, James Burton, Buddy Holly, Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins, and ultimately on to the likes of George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Joe Perry.

Where did Maybelle learn to play that way, though?  In a recorded interview with Mike Seeger in 1963 (it’s included in the Bear Family Records box set The Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain), she unhesitatingly attributed it to a single source: Esley Riddle.

“I learned my style, that picking style that I learned—that I do, rather—the style that I play, I learned it from a colored boy,” she said. “ … I learned (it) from a colored man that used to come to our house and play guitar, and he played with his fingers and his thumbs, kind of like Chet (Atkins).  … His name is Esley Riddles [sic], and he used to come to the house and quite often, you know, A.P. would bring him up and we’d sit around and play.  And he really knew a lot of old songs and played a lot of good guitar.”

Riddle lived until 1980, and enjoyed a musical renaissance of sorts thanks to the folk revival of the 1960s, so it’s possible, even probable that he heard Maybelle’s testimonial and appreciated the acknowledgement.

In any case, the fact that Riddle was intimately involved both in what songs the Carters played and also in how they played them underlines the importance of African-Americans not only to the blues-tinged, Jimmie Rodgers-led branch of country, but also to the mountain-ballad branch led by the Carters.

He could hardly have been at the Bristol Sessions—apparently he didn’t meet A.P. Carter until the next year, though the friendship immediately bloomed—but Riddle or someone like him should have been there, if only for the sake of symbolism.

It’s good that El Watson was.


One thought on “El Watson and the Ghost of Esley Riddle

  1. Pingback: Bound for a Different Land | Tennessee Walt

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