June 2020 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Pick 5: Songs of Blind Alfred Reed

For our “Pick 5” blog series, we ask members of the Radio Bristol team to pick five songs within a given theme – from heartsongs to murder ballads and everything in between! Once they pick their “5,” they get the chance to tell us more about why they chose those songs. With a diverse staff of knowledgeable DJs, we’re sure to get some interesting song choices, which might introduce you to some new music, all easily accessible by tuning into Radio Bristol! This month’s “Pick 5” focuses on the songs of Blind Alfred Reed, a 1927 Bristol Sessions artist, who was born on June 15, 1880.

When one thinks of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, it easy to let the contributions of luminaries such as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers overshadow the contributions of lesser known figures. Blind Alfred Reed’s music is forgotten by many, but his simple yet eloquent songs are among the most socially conscious of the catalog of early country music. Born in Floyd County, Virginia, Reed relocated to West Virginia where he made his humble living as a street musician, playing for tips and selling broadsides. Perhaps his time on the streets during this time helped Reed to tune into the plight of his fellow humans, as his songs pose questions that were often swept under the rug during their day. Compared to the rough and rowdy ways of Jimmie Rodgers and the overly romanticized heart-and-home songs of The Carter Family, Reed’s music takes to task issues like poverty or dangerous working situations under an often-humorous guise. To pay homage to Reed’s songwriting, I’ve picked five songs that touch on these topics:

“How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”

“How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” is one of Reed’s most widely known tunes, made popular by Ry Cooder’s later rendering. The title of this one explains itself.

“Explosion in the Fairmont Mine”

Songs of disaster within the dangerous work environments where death too often lay in wait are an important part of the ballad tradition. To tell the story of a mining disaster in Reed’s home state of West Virginia, Reed rehashed the traditional song widely known as “Dream of the Miner’s Child.”

“Money Cravin’ Folks”

Exploring the old adage “money is the root of all evil,” Reed makes listeners think about their priorities.

“Fate of Chris Lively and Wife”

As Appalachia was modernizing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, old ways of life crossed paths with the new, sometimes leading to new dangers. “Fate of Chris Lively and Wife” tells the tale of a wagon ride that ends tragically when the wagon and its passengers meet their doom with an oncoming train.

“Always Lift Him Up and Never Knock Him Down”

In difficult times, it’s easy to overlook the needs of others while focusing on our own issues, but here Reed urges listeners to help others along the difficult road of life.

The Night I Met Lesley Riddle: June 14, 1974

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.

Newspaper clipping that notes the various musical artists that had performed at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse in the past year, along with noting that Lesley Riddle will be playing for the next two nights with various other musicians.
This newspaper review of the Genesee Co-op Teahouse highlights the amazing musicians regularly featured there, including Lesley Riddle. It also notes that the high caliber of the music performances outweighed the taste of “all those weird teas they serve”! Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

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!

Lesley Riddle on stage with his guitar; a man with a long brown ponytail sits in front of the stage in the audience.
Lesley Riddle on stage at the Genesee Co-op Teahouse. Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

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.

Lesley Riddle in check pants and a tie standing beside a shorter bearded man in front of the Genesee Co-op Teahouse.
Lesley Riddle standing in front of the Genesee Co-op Teahouse with Larry Scahill. Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

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.

Left: Lesley Riddle sitting in a living room chair holding a large guitar.
Center: Lesley Riddle, dressed in a pale suit with tie and dress shoes, plays guitar beside Nancy Park. Nancy is a teenager with brown hair in a long 70s-style dress.
Right: A group shot in a living room with Lesley Riddle in the central chair, Mike Seeger to his right, Alice Gerrard to his left, and Nancy Park sitting in front of him on the floor. Mr. Riddle has one hand on Nancy's shoulder and holds a guitar in his other hand.
After I met Lesley Riddle, he spent a lot of time with my family and playing music with me. He’s seen here playing my 1930s National Steel Body guitar, which we believe belonged to Son House, a legendary blues artist (left); playing with me at my high school graduation party in June 1977 (center); and in his home with me, Mike Seeger, and Alice Gerrard (right) in the late 1970s. Courtesy of Nancy (Park) Drum

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.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Halfway to the Sky

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club! Each month, readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together to celebrate and explore one book inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage. We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 11:00am when we will dig deep into the feelings and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

The Appalachian Trail has been the topic of many memoirs and fictional stories – indeed, we read and discussed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods last year – but very few of these involve young adults. Halfway to the Sky fills that gap. Dani is a twelve-year-old girl who is looking for an escape from her reality at home. She wants to do something extraordinary, and so she decides to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail, all 2,200 miles. Her adventure doesn’t turn out quite the way she had planned, but maybe the old saying is right: it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. This is a story about family, loss, love, hope, and determination, told as only the gifted Kimberly Brubaker Bradley can tell it.

Cover of the book showing a young girl stepping up onto a rock on the trail with the mountains showing behind her.
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The cover of Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Halfway to the Sky embodies the focus of her book – the determined look in a young girl’s eyes, while she’s stepping upward and forward, wearing hiking boots, holding tightly onto her backpack and surrounded by the tops of mountains and trees. She almost touches the sun as she’s depicted halfway to the sky.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley lives on a 52-acre farm in Bristol Tennessee/Virginia – right on the border of both states and nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. Bradley was a chemistry major at Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts, where a classmate suggested she take a course in children’s literature. Newbery Medalist Patricia Maclachlan was the instructor, and both she and Bradley soon realized Bradley had a gift for writing. After college, Bradley started medical school as planned but dropped out after six weeks in order to pursue her dream of being an author. One could say that she still put that degree to work, because amazing chemistry between her characters is one of the hallmarks of Bradley’s work. Although her books are marketed for children and teens, adults have discovered her fine writing and storytelling and have become true fans.

Bradley has published 17 books, which have won several awards and honors. Her children’s book The War That Saved My Life received the Newbery Honor award in 2016. Bradley is married to her high school sweetheart Bart and has two children.

Author photograph: Headshot of KBB wearing a blue sweater, dangly earrings, a large necklace, and glasses.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Permission by the author

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, June 25 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about Halfway to the Sky and listen to an interview afterwards with the author! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time – the librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this interesting story!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for July is Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, July 23. Happy reading!