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Pick 5: The 1928 Bristol Sessions

If you are reading this blog post, you are probably familiar with why Bristol is considered by many to be the Birthplace of Country Music. During late July and early August of 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded several artists and acts at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building – two of these became known as the “first family of country music” (The Carter Family) and the “father of country music” (Jimmie Rodgers). And Rodgers also became one of the best-selling and most influential country acts of all time.

Eager to repeat the previous year’s success, Peer returned to Bristol in the fall of 1928 to record more regional artists. Though none of the recorded performers from the 1928 Bristol Sessions achieved the fame and influence of the The Carter Family or Jimmie Rodgers, these sessions yielded a fascinating body of work that is overshadowed by the storied 1927 sessions. Both casual and hardcore fans of country music owe it to themselves to check out the 1928 Bristol Sessions – and here are a few choice cuts to get you started:

“Angeline the Baker,” Uncle Eck Dunford

Uncle Eck Dunford of Galax, Virginia, came to Bristol with Ernest Stoneman in 1927. A comedian who recorded several spoken word skits, Dunford’s musical selections were lighthearted as well. A song from the pen of Stephen Foster, “Angeline the Baker” – often called “Angelina Baker” – has become a standard in acoustic music circles, but Dunford’s recording is the sole recording of the song in the pre-war country music discography.

“Unknown Blues,” Tarter and Gay

Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay were the sole African-American act to record at the 1928 Bristol Sessions. A rare glimpse into the scene of bluesmen who were active around Kingsport, Tennessee, before the Second World War, this record leaves me wanting more than the two sides the duo recorded. Featuring clear vocals and two guitars playfully intertwined, it is no surprise this duo was a hit with audiences across the Tri-Cities.

“Goodnight Darling,” Clarence Greene

Cranberry, North Carolina’s resident master musician Clarence Greene made the trek across the mountains to record in Bristol in 1928. A fiddler who is often associated with Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Greene plays the guitar and sings on this side of his sole Bristol Sessions release.

”I’ll Be Happy,” The Stamps Quartet

The Stamps Quartet was established in 1924 as part of the Stamps Music Publishing Company (Dallas, Texas), a company that sold hymnals. It is a bit of an oddity that a non-regional group recorded in Bristol in 1928, but this recording highlights the beautiful gospel quartet singing that is often overlooked as a significant part of early country music.

“I Truly Understand, You Love Another Man,” Shortbuckle Roark and Family

The 1928 Bristol Sessions and Columbia’s 1928 Johnson City Sessions were recorded so close geographically and timewise that it is no surprise some artists appeared on recordings by both labels. George “Shortbuckle” Roark is one such musician, and both sessions yielded absolute classics in the old-time music cannon. I’ve also shared a bonus selection from the Johnson City recordings below – “I Ain’t A Bit Drunk,” George Roark

Instrument Interview: The Bones

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we talk with the bones.

What are you?

I am a type of percussive instrument known as a “concussion idiophone,” which refers to me being made of up of similar objects that make a sound when struck together. I’m also called the “rhythm bones,” which gives you a clue to the role I play in music.

Two views of two sets of bones, made of animal bones. One is larger than the other, and they are each connected by a leather cord.
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum has two sets of circa 1927 bones in our collection, donated by Dom Flemons in 2015.

Where do you come from?

I’ve been around for a long time, and you can find versions of bones all the way back to several ancient cultures. Archaeologists have excavated bones (as instruments) from graves and tombs in prehistoric Mesopotamia and Egypt, and also discovered images of musicians playing the bones on Greek pottery. There is also evidence of the bones being played in the Roman Empire and ancient China. More recently – that is, in the 18th and 19th centuries – I came to North America with Irish and English immigrants, who used the bones as a way to keep a steady beat for their jigs and reels.

A pottery sherd with a red-figure dancer, gender unclear holding two bones-like instruments in their hands.

Fragment of a terra cotta red-figure kylix, Greek, 510-500 BC. The image is of a dancer using a bones-like instrument as part of the performance. Public domain

Are you really made from bones?

My original versions were made from animal bones, usually the rib or shin bones of sheep, cows, and sometimes horses. I’m often slightly curved, reflective of the natural shape of these bones, and I typically measure between 5 and 7 inches in length. While modern bones are still made from animal bones, you can also find ones made from wood and plastic. A variety of woods can be used, such as cherry, mahogany, walnut, and maple, with different woods producing different tones as is seen in other wooden instruments.

How are you played?

Players hold a pair of bones between their fingers with the convex sides facing one another; one is held fairly tightly and the other more loosely. By shaking the wrist, the bones hit one another, creating a loud “clack.” The connection between the two bones is carried by the momentum from the player’s arm and hand movements rather than any effort to force the bones to knock together. In North America, players tend to play with a pair of bones in each hand, while in Ireland the tradition is to play one-handed.

It’s hard to get a sense of what the movement looks like and the resulting sound by describing it, so check out Dom Flemons playing the bones. It’s actually quite amazing – and beautiful – to watch:

What type of music are you typically found in?

You can hear bones being played in a wide variety of genres, such as traditional Irish and Scottish music, blues, bluegrass, zydeco, French-Canadian music, and Cape Breton (in Nova Scotia) traditions.

Because bones were also often used by African American musicians, they became a common facet of 19th-century minstrel shows – where white performers appeared in blackface; later Black entertainers appeared in minstrel shows too – and the bones’ popularity in the United States grew within this context. One of the first bones-playing minstrel performers was Frank Brower, and the first documentation of him playing the bones in front of an audience are from 1841 in Virginia. He played with a much larger pair of bones than is usual today – two 12-inch lengths of horse rib bones!

An image of an exhibit case with William Sidney Mount's "The Bone Player" -- a black musician wearing a hat, jacket, waistcoat, and cravat-like tie, and holding two pairs of bones in his hands.
This image of William Sidney Mount’s “The Bone Player,” 1857, is on display in the museum exhibits. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Are there famous musicians associated with the bones?

There are many famous bones players! Freeman Davis, known by his stage name “Brother Bones” and also as “Whistling Sam,” was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1902. He recorded several songs in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in three movies, and performed at Carnegie Hall and on The Ed Sullivan Show. His most famous recording is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which became the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme tune in 1952. He took bones playing to an intense high of four bones in each hand and even playing knives like bones!

DeFord Bailey, best known for his wonderful harmonica playing and as a regular on the Grand Ole Opry in its early days, included bones playing in his performances along with yo-yo tricks and guitar picking. He was country music’s first African American star.

John Burrill learned to play the bones in his teens during the Depression. One viewer described Burrill’s style of bones-playing as looking like his arms were upside-down windshield wipers. Over the years, Burrill played with a host of other musicians and acts, including the Brattle Street Players, Steve Baird, Clifton Chenier, Spider John Koerner, Molly Malone, and even the Infliktors, a punk band. When asked what key he played in, his reply was “the skeleton key”!

Peadar Mercier was a percussionist in the Irish band The Chieftains, playing both the bodhran and the bones. He was with them from 1966 to 1976.

Dom Flemons, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and now a solo artist, is known as the American Songster, whose “repertoire of music covers over 100 years of early American popular music.” Flemons is a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, quills, fife, and, of course, the bones. He has bones made out of cow rib and shin bones that he plays in the double-handed style.

I’ve heard of someone called “the Rhythm Bones King.” Who was he?

The Rhythm Bones King is a man called Joe Birl. In 1945 Birl applied for a patent for his black molded plastic bones that bore a groove to help keep the bones from slipping out of a player’s hand. Birl produced and sold around 150,000 pairs of these plastic rhythm bones. After the plastic mold broke, he made wooden rhythm bones with his patented grooved design. He passed away in 2012, and Joe Birl Jr. continued to sell bones made in his father’s design.

Left: Joe Birl’s original plastic rhythm bones; Center: A store placard advertising the sale of rhythm bones; Right: A photograph of customers holding Birl’s rhythm bones in a store. All objects from the Dom Flemons Collection at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Were you played at the Bristol Sessions?

I was! Black musician El Watson played me when he accompanied the Johnson Brothers on two recordings – “Two Brothers Are We” and “I Want to See My Mother (Ten Thousand Miles Away).” He also accompanied them on harmonica for their recording of “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy,” and Charles Johnson played guitar on Watson’s two harmonica recordings, “Pot Licker Blues” and “Narrow Gauge Blues.” These are some of the earliest integrated country music and blues recordings.

Are there other instruments related to you?

There are many other types of percussive instruments that are used in a similar way to the bones. For instance, clappers – consisting of two solid pieces made of wood, metal, ivory, and even plastic that are slapped together – are found in a lot of musical traditions, from China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand to medieval France and modern Western symphony orchestras.

Castanets are made of two concave shells joined with string at one edge. They are usually made of chestnut wood, and they are played two-handed. Castanets are also used in several musical traditions, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Swiss, Moorish, Ottoman, Sephardic, and Italian.

Playing the spoons is especially common in American folk music and often seen in jug bands. Like the bones, the spoons are held in one hand and played against each other as a percussive instrument. To see some amazing spoon playing, check out Abby the Spoon Lady.

Anything else you want to share with us?

Remember singing the nursery rhyme song “This Old Man” when you were a child? Well, that song is thought to refer to bones playing! The first verse goes like this (and so on):

“This old man, he played one,

He played knick-knack on my thumb;

With a knick-knack paddywhack,

Give a dog a bone,

This old man came rolling home.”

A paddywhack is a ligament – known as the nuchal ligament – in the neck of sheep and cattle.

*Want some of your own bones? Then stop by The Museum Store where you can buy wooden bones (and spoons) made by local artisan Walt Messick of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.

Radio Bristol Book Club: Hiding Ezra

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!

October’s book, Hiding Ezra by Rita Sims Quillen, is set in the Appalachian hills of southwest Virginia during World War I. It is a poignant and moving story with endearing characters who are struggling with the difficulties of war. At a time when families are forced into lives seemingly out of their control, Ezra Teague finds himself having to choose between his country and his family. This beautifully written narrative is a story that centers on love and consequences, and it’s also a story about what is morally right or wrong in questions of the heart. Ezra must make an incredibly difficult decision about which path his life will take, but one thing we do know is this: Ezra is not a coward, and he’s not a pacifist; rather he is a farmer, a Christian, and a family man. Hiding Ezra, which was published in 2014, was a finalist in the 2015 DANA Awards competition, and a chapter from the novel was included in a scholarly study of Appalachian dialect, Talking Appalachian.

The cover of Hiding Ezra is a pencil drawing of a white clapboard church with a woman and several children standing at the window and a man sitting (hiding?) outside on the ground beside the church.
The cover to Rita Sims Quillen’s Hiding Ezra. The cover art was drawn by renowned Appalachian artist Willard Gayheart.

Rita Sims Quillen knew of her literary future from an early age – indeed, she started telling her teachers in the 4th grade that she would be a writer when she grew up. Her whole life, she has loved and devoured books, and she has written novels and poetry centered on the Appalachian Mountains and the people who live here. While writing poetry is her first love, Quillen was also a teacher, retiring after 33 years of community college teaching in Tennessee and Virginia, later specializing in American and Appalachian literature and acting as co-editor to the textbook A Southern Appalachian Reader. Her poetry book Something Solid to Anchor To was published in 2014, and another poetry collection, The Mad Farmer’s Wife (2016), was a finalist for the prestigious Weatherford Award in Appalachian Literature from Berea College.

Quillen is also a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, mandolin, piano, dulcimer, autoharp, bass, and bodhran, and she has recently begun writing songs. She won first place in the 2015 Gathering in the Gap Songwriting Contest and was also a finalist in the Richard Leigh Songwriting Competition that same year. Rita lives and farms on Early Autumn Farm in Scott County, Virginia.

A blonde woman wearing a blue top and pants with a lavender scarf around her neck. She is standing at a wooden fence gate and you can see a black cow behind her in the distance.
The author Rita Sims Quillen on her farm. Taken from author’s website

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, October 22 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about Hiding Ezra, followed by an interview 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. And be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful musical journey!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for November is Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives by Holly Gleason which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, November 19 (a week early due to Thanksgiving). Happy reading!

The Power of Music: Suffrage Songs

Today is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which states “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In other words, it finally gave American women the right to vote and be represented.

Congress ratified this amendment on June 4, 1919, but it still needed to be affirmed by 3/4 of the states in order to become law. Suffragettes and their supporters had been working for this day since 1832, and the very first amendment for women’s right to vote was introduced in 1878, taking 42 years to reach ratification. The road was long and hard with women fighting through words, negotiation and diplomacy, and acts of civil disobedience to gain the right to vote. American democracy has been a beacon to many outside our shores, but it makes one pause to think that women only gained this basic right 100 years ago.

A line of women crowd in front of a building. They are wearing early 20th century clotes, and one of the women looks out from the line and directly at the camera.
Women line up to vote for the first time in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, after passage of the 19th amendment. Image courtesy of Bristol Historical Association

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is fortunate to have two poster exhibits that explore this complex history, the people who fought to be recognized, and the acts that brought them to victory on August 18, 1920. The first – Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence – comes to us from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. This exhibit traces the story of women’s suffrage, of inclusion in and exclusion from the franchise, and of our civic development as a nation while also examining the relevance of this history to Americans’ lives today. The second – To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women’s Fight for the Vote, created by the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee State Library and Archives – digs deep into the history of the woman’s suffrage movement, Tennessee’s dramatic vote to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the years that followed. Both of these exhibits will be on display by September 1 and are definitely worth a visit over the next few months!

Right: The introductory panel for Votes for Women bears text and images on the subject, including a woman dressed in classical garb in front of a government building and a portrait of Ida B. Wells. Center: The graphic poster reads "Votes for Women" and "Equality is the sacred law of humanity" and bears the image of a woman's head with wings at her hair and a sculpture of a double-headed axe behind her. Left. The introductory poster for To Make Our Voices Heard has portraits of several suffrage leaders, text, and a picture of suffragettes marching.
Right and left: The introductory panels to the Votes for Women and To Make Our Voices Heard exhibits. Center: Graphic poster from the suffrage movement. Equality Is the Sacred Law of Humanity, c. 1903–1915; Lithograph by Egbert C. Jacobson Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

As a music museum, there is one thing we know for sure: music has power and impact, and so I wanted to explore some of the songs that helped fuel the suffrage movement. Artists have long used songs to throw light on the world around them – for instance, Hazel Dickens and other musicians who highlighted the tribulations and dangers of Appalachian coal mining communities or the anthems, often with their origins in African American spirituals and traditional hymns, that powered Civil Rights activists in the struggle. Music is a way for people to express their contemporary burdens and their dreams for a better future.

The women of the suffrage movement also lifted themselves up with song, highlighting the rights they were fighting for and inspiring them in that fight. The lyrics to these songs were often set to popular tunes or traditional hymns, thus making them easier to sing and remember. For instance, “Human Equality,” written in the 1870s by William Lloyd Garrison, was sung to the tune of another popular song used in support of labor reform and abolition. While not about women’s right to vote, the poem”Rights of Woman,” written by “A Lady” in 1795, declared women free and was later set to the tune of “My Country Tis of Thee.” “Daughters of Freedom” was published in 1871 and was composed by Edward Christie with lyrics by George Cooper, while a song by Frank Boylen from 1881 asked “Shall Women Vote?” America being the melting pot that it is, some songs also came from immigrant sources, such as “Damen Rechte (Suffragettes),” a popular Yiddish song that not only called for women’s right to vote but also extolled other freedoms and equality in society at large. Some songs were also written specifically for suffrage marches and meant to be played by brass bands, such as “Fall in Line.” Around 1880, D. Estabrook wrote “Keep Woman in Her Sphere,” which on first glance seems to be anti-women’s rights with various men declaring that women should stay in their traditional roles and not expect equal rights. However, the last verse turns this notion on its head with the assertion:

I asked him “What of woman’s cause?”
The answer came sincere —
“Her rights are just the same as mine,
Let woman choose her sphere.

Left: The sheet music cover has bold script with the title of the song, and notes that it is for solo quartet and records the names of the composer and lyricist. Center: A female suffragette band marches down a wide city street. Left: The cover of the Songs of the Suffragettes album is bright pink and has an illustration of a suffrage meeting, with several people around a large table and an audience ranged behind them.
Right: Cover of the sheet music to “Daughters of Freed! The Ballot Be Yours.” Library of Congress. Music Division, Microfilm M 3500 M2.3.U6A44
Center: National American Woman Suffrage Association parade held in Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. LC-B2- 2505-7, Bain News Service photograph collection, Library of Congress
Left: Unfortunately, very few suffragette songs were recorded at the time of their usage, but you can hear many of these rousing songs on the Smithsonian Folkways recording Songs of the Suffragettes, sung by Elizabeth Knight.

Where there was a fight for women’s rights, however, came societal and political push back – also expressed through music. Songs that mocked the suffragettes’ struggle and emphasized women’s “proper” place abounded, such as “Since My Margaret Became a Suffragette,” “The Anti-Suffrage Rose,” “Mind the Baby, I Must Vote Today,” and “Your Mother’s Gone Away to Join the Army” both published in the early 1910s. Various songs also questioned the other changes women were embracing, often deemed as “unladylike.” This was especially true as women pushed for less restrictive clothes like the “Bloomer costume,” which was attacked in the 1851 song “The Bloomer’s Complaint.” Women riding bicycles were also seen as a sign of these times; indeed, Susan B. Anthony viewed bicycles as doing “more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.” “Eliza Jane,” a song from 1895, brought all these horrors together – less restrictive clothing, bicycles, and the desire to vote!

Was there any connection between suffrage and the songs of early country music? I don’t know of any hillbilly songs that embrace the suffrage movement in song, but there are certainly a few songs that reflect the changes that were happening on this front and give hints to women moving beyond their stereotypical roles. For instance, The Carter Family’s “Single Girl, Married Girl,” recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions and sung only by Sara and Maybelle, contrasts the freedom of the singleton with the restrictions a married woman bears taking care of husband, babies, and home. And as with the anti-suffrage songs, there were also reactions from hillbilly musicians to the ways women’s roles were changing. Blind Alfred Reed, another 1927 Bristol Sessions singer, later recorded “Why Do You Bob Your Hair, Girls?,” which declared that “every time you bob it, you’re breaking God’s command,” and “Woman’s Been After Man Ever Since,” which bemoaned the early days of Eve in the Garden of Eden and all the ways women were trying to be like men in contemporary society. More disapproval of women’s ways can be found in Ira and Eugene Yates recording “Powder and Paint” from the Johnson City Sessions in 1929.

Finally, it’s worth noting a couple of great songs that teach the history of the suffrage movement and celebrate its achievement. The first is from a much-loved slice of my childhood, Schoolhouse Rock“Sufferin’ till Suffrage,” sung by the wonderful Etta James. And then, of course, there is Dolly Parton (it’s ALWAYS Dolly…). In 2018, she contributed to 27: The Most Perfect Album, “a collection of songs about the Constitutional amendments that have shaped our democracy, and yet are often at the center of fierce political debate.” Dolly’s song about the 19th amendment starts with a brief spoken introduction to the suffrage story, and soon transitions into a rousing song about the fight for the vote.

A (Safe) Weekend Getaway to Bristol

The COVID-19 pandemic may have foiled our plans for Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion this year, but you don’t have to cancel your trip. Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee is a great little getaway, and it’s the perfect opportunity to experience things you’d otherwise miss hopping from stage to stage at the festival. Plus, a Bristol visit is more economical than trips to larger cities and way less crowded – a great option for satisfying your need to travel while keeping your distance during the pandemic.

Get a Room

View of Bristol sign and mountain range from Lumac rooftop bar above The Bristol Hotel.
The view from Lumac rooftop bar above The Bristol Hotel.
Photo credit The Bristol Hotel

Maybe in festivals past you haven’t been able to snag reservations at the fabulous Bristol Hotel or gotten to see the newly opened – and stunning – Sessions Hotel, which honors our cities’ legacy as the birthplace of country music. Both hotels are located in our Historic Downtown so they are steps away from everything State Street has to offer, plus they have amazing dining options. From drinks with a view at Lumac or The Rooftop to fine dining at Vivian’s Table or Southern Craft, each location offers all the comforts of home in a sophisticated atmosphere. Vision Day Spa and Salon is slated to open in September at The Sessions Hotel, so call ahead to book that much-needed spa package! The Sessions Hotel also offers a package that includes a visit to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Both hotels are taking social distancing precautions for your safety. Call ahead for more information.

The Museum

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Photo credit Birthplace of Country Music

Speaking of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, fans of Bristol Rhythm may not always have time to stop and explore it during the festival. Planning a trip to Bristol apart from the event allows time to dig into the musical history of the region and the legacy of the 1927 Bristol Sessions – the reason the festival exists! An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, this award-winning, interactive museum offers an unforgettable experience that’s truly world-class. Come for the permanent exhibits, and the stories they tell, and you can also explore different special exhibits. Right now, we have Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program (through August 30). And coming soon you will be able to explore Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972-1981, featuring the photographs of Henry Horenstein, on display September 29, 2020 through March 28, 2021, along with two small displays celebrating the women’s suffrage movement and the centennial anniversary of women gaining the right to vote from the Smithsonian Institution and the Tennessee State Museum. Additionally, your health and safety is priority one at the museum. Masks are required by all guests, volunteers, and staff, groups are socially distanced, and heightened sanitizing practices are firmly in place. Learn about the museum’s Healthy Business Certification by clicking here, or click here to watch a brief video about the museum’s safety measures.

The Underground Scene

Photo of the inside of Bristol Caverns.
Majestic Bristol Caverns.
Photo credit Bristol Caverns

“Far below the earth’s surface, in the timeless beauty of Bristol Caverns, a strange and exciting experience awaits…” reads the website description for this wondrous attraction that Native Americans used as an attack and escape route by way of underground river. A popular location for school tour groups, these caverns are a rite of passage for elementary school kids across the Tri-Cities region. During the pandemic, school tours are likely on hiatus, so September would be a great time to check it out. Tours are scheduled every half hour and masks are required. Schedule in advance to guarantee a more private and socially distanced experience. A little further away in Blountville, Tennessee, Appalachian Caverns is dog friendly and offers primitive tent camping.

Park It

Three men playing Disc Golf at Steele Creek Park.
Disc golf, obstacle course, biking, and hiking at Steele Creek Park.
Photo credit DiscoverBristol.org

Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee and Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia are terrific for light hiking and biking excursions. A few trails within Steele Creek offer a bit more of a challenge. Sugar Hollow offers on-site camping for RVs with social distancing and health screening required. The Nature Center, train, and paddle boats at Steele Creek are closed for now, but the disc golf course is super-fun and a great excuse to get outside for some friendly competition.

Jump in the Lake

Lovely view overlooking South Holston Lake with fluffy clouds in the sky.
South Holston Lake
Photo credit DiscoverBristol.org

Bordered by the Cherokee National Forest, South Holston Lake is an outdoors playground, with over 10,000 acres of reservoir and 160 miles of shoreline. Boat rentals are available at Laurel Marina or Painter Creek Marina and there are lots of little islands and coves to explore once you’re out on the open water. Each location has a restaurant on-site or you can pull into a guest slip at Lake View Dock’s Wheelhouse for lunch or dinner. Social distancing is a rule at the restaurants, and some marinas require masks unless you are dining.

Go Fish

2 fishermen showing off the catch of the day for the camera. One man is giving a thumbs up, the other is holding a nice sized fish.
Catch of the day!
Photo credit South Holston River Lodge

South Holston River is a fly fisher’s paradise and considered one of the best locations for smallmouth bass and trout in the Southeast. Go your own way or let one of the pros at South Holston River Lodge take you on a guided journey surrounded by natural beauty. Cabins at the Lodge are also available for rental, and the lodge is taking extra precautions for health and safety during the pandemic.

Ride “The Snake”

Deep sh-shaped curves along HIghway 421, what  motorists call The Snake 421
The Snake 421 weaves through the Cherokee National Forest.
Photo credit Dave Richard

Top off your weekend with a nice Sunday drive along The Snake 421, a favorite among motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts. Journey from State Street to State Route U.S. 421 along a 37-mile section of road between Bristol and Mountain City, Tennessee that offers 489 curves. The journey takes you across South Holston Lake, over three mountains, and down to lovely Shady Valley, Tennessee. Keep an eye out for bears and other wildlife and don’t forget the Dramamine. On the way there or back, be sure to take a quick drive across South Holston Dam, the third-largest earthen dam in the world. There’s a picnic area and a small visitors’ center installation on site where you can learn more about this amazing project. Fun fact: 342 families and 559 graves were relocated in order to build the dam, which was completed in 1950. The flooding inspired author William Hill to write the fictional novel Dawn of the Vampire, where he imagines the undead rising from the depths to prey on the living. Chilling!

Other Fun Stuff

The iconic Bristol sign reads: Bristol VA Tenn A Good Place to Live
The Bristol Sign.
Photo credit Briana Morris

So whether it’s a stay-cation or a full-blown weekender, a trip to Bristol could be just what the doctor ordered for pandemic blues as long as you play it safe. Downtown is filled with great restaurants and breweries that offer curbside service and/or distancing, and there are also lots of great spots to picnic and unwind. If you want to learn more about what’s happening Downtown, visit BelieveInBristol.org, and for more on Bristol and the surrounding region, visit DiscoverBristol.org.

Cardio, Double Tap, and Other Stuff Scary Movies Taught Us About Avoiding COVID-19

Cool Spooktacular Bristol Rhythm playlist included!

I think we can all agree 2020 has been one giant dumpster fire. As we enter the Halloween season, you might be thinking reality has become a little like living a scary movie. This got me to thinking: if this were a scary movie, how could we flip the script? Hasn’t the horror genre taught us everything we need to know about surviving until the credits? And because every good Halloween flick needs a killer soundtrack, I’ve included a Spooktacular Bristol Rhythm playlist on Spotify to aid in your assault on COVID-19, with nearly five hours of music by your favorite festival artists! From the trailer through the double feature, we got you covered.

Various memes about 2020. 1) A dumpster on fire with 2020 captioned. 2) Rod Serling from the Twilight Zone captioned "Historians Introducting A Documentary about 2020 - What you're about the watch is a nightmare." 3) A sign that says "I wanted zombies this virus sucks. 4) Someone holding a protest sign that reads "This episode of black mirror sucks."
Top 4 memes of 2020.

Please understand, I mean no disrespect. My intent is not to make light of the pandemic, its victims, or the tragedies we are facing as a society. COVID-19 has attacked my industry and many others, our friends and family, cancelled our favorite festival and now my favorite holiday – Halloween. But if the horror genre has taught me anything, it’s that light almost always conquers darkness, and that keeping a sense of humor through hard times is crucial to survival. But. Like Laurie Strode beat down the Boogeyman, I’m ready to kick some COVID ass!

Ultimate scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter's 1978 masterpiece Halloween. A pandemic mask with tiny Halloween pumpkins has been photoshopped to her face.
“I got your mask right here, Michael.”
Ultimate scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween. Credit Compass International Pictures, Falcon International Pictures, and Falcon International Productions.

An examination of the zombie sub-genre of horror by masters Romero, Kirkman, Boyle, Brooks, and Fleisher is essential right now because their work imparts an over-arching social commentary, including the dissection of human behavior, during times of fictional global crisis. Therein you may find one section of the population, like besties Shaun and Ed of Shaun of the Dead, who just want to wait it out over pints at The Winchester until help shows up.

Cast members of the film Shaun of the Dead sitting in a booth at The Winchester pub raising up pints of beer and smiling.
Liz (Kate Ashfield), Shaun (Simon Pegg), Shaun’s Mum Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and Ed (Nick Frost) “waiting it out” over pints of beer at The Winchester, a neighborhood pub.
Good times.
From the 2004 feature film Shaun of the Dead, credit Rogue Pictures, StudioCanal, Working Title Films

In contrast you may find characters on a mission, like Tallahassee in Zombieland who would face down a horde of the undead for a single Twinkie. Eventually Tallahassee meets up with Columbus and learned there are rules. If those rules were applied to the here and now, they kind of make sense. Let’s break it down:

Columbus (Jesse Eisenburgh) and Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and the search for Twinkies in Zombieland 2009.
Credit Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media, Pariah.

Rule #1 – Cardio (References the ability to outrun danger.)
Conditioning during the pandemic isn’t the worst idea. Stay strong, friends!

Rule #2 – Double Tap (Always make sure a zombie is decommissioned, i.e. a second shot to the head)
When a sink is nowhere to be found, have sanitizer ready as a back up. Go for the big guns and hit that pump twice so you’re covered.

Rule #3 – Beware of Bathrooms (Don’t get trapped with your pants down.)
Public restrooms can be sketch, so make going potty in a strange place a fun game! It’s called “Not Touching Stuff with Your Bare Hands” and anyone can play! Be resourceful, get creative! Give yourself points for ingenuity!
Judge if you will, but I was playing this game for years before COVID-19 because poo.

A tidy midcentury modern looking bathroom with someone about to open the shower curtain from inside the bathtub.
The bathroom in room 237 at The Overlook Hotel appears clean, but it’s very, very dirty.
1980 The Shining, credit Warner Bros., Hawk Films, Peregrine, Producers Circle

Rule #4 Seatbelts (For obvious reasons.)
Okay, this one really won’t protect you from COVID-19, but I mention it because it’s a safety precaution, just like wearing a mask, and seatbelts don’t seem to trigger anybody into a political argument. You just wear ’em and shut up about it.

Rule #7 Travel Light (You never know when you need to bolt.)
Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Mask and hand sanitizer? Check, check.

Four people in a car wearing seatbelts with COVI-19 masks photoshopped to their faces.
Mark (Will Poulter), Christian (Jack Reynor), and Dani (Florence Pugh) believe in safety first, but their first mistake was trusting Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren).
From Midsommar 2019 credit A24, B-Reel Films, Nordisk Film, Square Peg.

Rule #17 Be a Hero (Amended rule from the previous, don’t be a hero–sometimes you have to be a helper.)
Imagine how many times you’ve distanced, masked up and not infected anyone with COVID-19! You’re already a hero!

Sigourney Weaver in the movie alien stalking her prey with a big gun and wearing a photoshopped COVID mask.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) knows what it takes to be the final girl.
From Ridley Scott’s legendary sci-fi horror film Alien, 1979. Credit Brandywine Productions.

Rule #22 When in Doubt, Know Your Way Out
Don’t be afraid to say “no” to situations that don’t make you feel safe. These are extraordinary times, and the sooner we lick this thing, the sooner we can all get back to normal.

Rule #31 Check the Back Seat
Can’t find your mask? Did you check the back seat?

Actor Alex Wolff in the driver's seat of his car looking pensively into the rear view mirror.
You don’t want to know what was really in his back seat.
Alex Wolff as Peter in 2018’s Hereditary, one of the greatest and most
disturbing horror movies of the last decade.
Credit PalmStar Media, Finch Entertainment, Windy Hill Pictures.

Rule #32 Enjoy the Little Things
Don’t take anything for granted. Let’s show each other some kindness and compassion, and be grateful for all the little things that make us happy. Like family, friends, and good music!

Several cast members of the show The Walking Dead standing in a field at sunset holding weapons as if they are ready for battle.
Even through a zombie apocalypse, Rick Grimes and the gang understand that the key to living their lives with unmasked freedom is by having a good moral compass, protecting the group, and taking down walkers (a.k.a. zombies) with a swift headshot.
The cast of The Walking Dead credit American Movie Classics (AMC), Circle of Confusion, Valhalla Motion Pictures, Darkwoods Productions, AMC Studios, Idiot Box Productions

One positive thing about scary times and scary stories is what they teach us about ourselves. Even the most unassuming characters can turn out to be the toughest and most resourceful, and there is safety in numbers when we all choose to stick together and do the right thing. I pray we all actively choose to be heroes and protect each other, because our lives just may depend on it. I desperately want us all to dance together next year during Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on State Street without masks and without the threat of COVID-19. Even scary stories sometimes have happy endings, and after all we’ve been through in 2020, I think we deserve one.

We hope you enjoy this musical Halloween treat from us: A Spooktacular Bristol Rhythm Spotify Playlist! From Appalachian murder ballads to rip-roarin’ rockabilly monster rock, some roots songs conjure an atmosphere worthy of any big screen thriller. I dug down deep into the vault of past Bristol Rhythm artists to come up with some killer tracks for this season of the witch – and found dozens of chilling tunes that rattle bones and tell some scary little stories of their own.

Radio Bristol Book Club: The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

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 subtitle of Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap almost says it all: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book. What it leaves out is the struggle that it takes to become part of an insular community, suspicious of outsiders, in the Appalachian Mountains during an economic downturn. It also leaves out the joy and terror of following a dream. While they didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, Wendy and husband Jack Beck were a bit taken aback by the number of times people summed up their venture with the statement “You’re nuts.” Making connections with an interesting assortment of characters, Wendy and Jack strive not only to succeed as booksellers but to become a resource, refuge, and perhaps most amazingly, an animal rescue. How they succeed makes for wonderful and inspiring reading.

Left: The cover of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap has a black-and-white drawing of the bookstore with the title and author's name on it. Right: The large white house, which served as the book store, has shelves of books on the porch and a toilet sitting in the front yard!

The cover of Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, along with a photograph of the actual bookstore from the Bristol Herald Courier.

Wendy Welch has a degree in Ethnography, a Scottish husband, and an assortment of animals, all of whom figure in this delightful and thoughtful memoir. In addition to The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Wendy is the author of Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Foster Care and Adoption in Appalachia and Bad Boy in the Book Store (ebook), and the editor of From the Front Lines of the Appalachian Addiction Crisis and Public Health in Appalachia.

Jack Beck (white-haired with a beard, wearing a black t-shirt and jeans) and Wendy Welch (brown-haired and wearing a black top with a colorful print skirt or dress) stand with their arms around each other in front of floor to ceiling shelves of books.

Wendy Welch with her husband Jack Beck in their Big Stone Gap bookstore. Image from Shelf Awareness

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, August 27 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap! 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 delightful story!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for September is Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of the Century by Barry Mazor, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, September 24. Happy reading!

Real Folk: A Few of My Favorite Things

On March 6, the museum opened a special exhibit called Real Folk: Passing on Trades & Traditions Through the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, in partnership with the Virginia Folklife Program. While the COVID-19 situation meant that for three months no one was able to visit the exhibit – except virtually – we have now reopened, and the exhibit is waiting to be enjoyed through its closing date in August!

This is one of my favorite special exhibits that we’ve had on display at the museum – the images by photographers Pat Jarrett and Morgan Miller are stunning, the stories of the master artists and apprentices told by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman are fascinating, and the range of crafts, trades, and traditions astounding.

Here are just a few of the interesting things I’ve learned from Real Folk:

A Virginia Town’s Salty Past

Saltville – found in the Southern Appalachians – is named for its unusually high number of salt marshes, or as locals call them, salt licks. Not only is the salt source extensive here, but the salt from Saltville is also especially salty – around 10 times saltier than ocean water! Saltville’s natural salt deposits have influenced the history of the region from the late Pleistocene period, when they attracted Ice Age mammals and Paleoamericans to the area, to early European traders to the Civil War when nearly two-thirds of the South’s salt was produced in Saltville and two bloody battles were fought here.


Jim Bordwine’s family has lived in and around Saltville since the 1770s. He has dedicated his life to educating the public about Saltville’s history and continuing its traditional craft of making salt, including passing down this knowledge to son Baron through an apprenticeship. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Quilt Signals

We have quite a few quilt connections in our museum – from the huge Birthplace of Country Music quilt hanging in our atrium to the quilt “tapestries” on sell in The Museum Store to the museum’s color scheme based on old quilts and flour sacks. Master Artist Sharon Tindall has conducted substantial research in support of the theory that African American quilts contained coded messages integral to the success of the Underground Railroad, codes that told enslaved people about what to expect next on their journey and how to find safe haven.


Sharon Tindall specializes in early African American quilt patterns and in working with fabrics that aren’t typically used in quilting, such as Malian mud cloth. She shared her experience with apprentice Nancy Chilton. © Birthplace of Country Music Museum

A Connection Between Music and Language

The đàn bâu – translated to mean “gourd lute” – is a monochord or one-stringed instrument, which plays a central role in Vietnamese music. Playing the đàn bâu can create microtones capable of imitating the six essential tones and variations of the Vietnamese language, nearly impossible to achieve with any other instrument. Traditionally, it is also used as an accompaniment to Vietnamese poetry readings.


Nam Phuon Nguyen began playing an instrument called the đàn bâu at 17, later touring and performing throughout the United States with her family. She is seen here with her apprentice Anh Dien Ky Nguyen. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

From Everyday Object to Musical Instrument

Music has often been made from everyday objects – for instance, think of a washtub bass or the spoons. The steel drum, or “pan” as it is called in the Caribbean, was invented in Trinidad around World War II, when island locals resourcefully crafted these instruments from oil drums left behind by the U.S. Navy. Contemporary pans are created when a 55-gallon steel oil drum is hammered concave, a process known as sinking. The drum is then tempered and notes are carefully grooved into the steel, resulting in a melodic percussive instrument that can play three full octaves.


Master Artist Elton Williams, who worked with apprentice Earl Sawyer, grew up in Trinidad and immersed himself in every aspect of steel bands. He is a musician, composer, tuner, and now one of the few steel pan makers in the U.S. © Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program

For the Love of Fonts

Prior to the advent of photocopiers, short-run quick print, email, and social media, the local letterpress was the primary producer of the vast majority of materials for mass communication – from church bulletins to wedding announcements to commercial advertisements, and so much more. My favorite elements of letterpress are the individual letters used in the printing process (and so many possible fonts!) and the wonderful act of rolling out the ink ready to print. We have our own letterpress studio here in Southwest Virginia at the Burke Print Shop in the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts.


Left: Images from the letterpress apprenticeship between Garrett Queen and Lana Lambert in the Real Folk exhibit. Right: Letter blocks at the Burke Print Shop. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program; © Rene Rodgers

Different Dulcimers

When I used to think of a dulcimer, I thought of one particular type – an hourglass-shaped instrument – because we had one like that hanging in our home when I was a child. Since then, I’ve learned there are many types of dulcimers (all from the zither family) that are played in many places throughout the world – from the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer to the banjo dulcimer and the bowed dulcimer – with different shapes and different ways of being played. The dulcimer from my house – and the one most familiar around our area – is the mountain dulcimer, a fretted string instrument that first appeared in the 19th century among Scots-Irish communities. It is also known as the lap dulcimer.


Left: Phyllis Gaskins, seen here with apprentice Anna Stockdale, plays the Galax dulcimer, which is lozenge-shaped, has four strings all tuned to the same note, and is played with a turkey or goose quill. The Galax dulcimer is intended to be an equal instrument in old-time string bands, mirroring the fiddle. Right: Master Dulcimer Maker Walter Messick apprenticed Chris Testerman, an award-winning fiddler who is already considered one of the great up-and-coming luthiers in the region. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

An Unorthodox Route to Creativity

The late Pastor Mary Onley, known as “Mama-Girl,” was a self-taught artist who came from generations of farm laborers, working in the fields herself at the age of 12. Severe allergies resulted in several hospitalizations, and during one of these, she reported being visited by a spirit who instructed her to create art out of paper and found objects – something she had never done before. She went on to become one of the most celebrated folk artists on the East Coast, creating lyrical newspaper and glue sculptures that reflected her inner visions and unique creativity.


In 2016, Mama-Girl taught son David Rogers her unorthodox artistic techniques and how to open his mind to receive his own divine artistic inspirations. © Pat Jarrett/Virginia Folklife Program

Radio Bristol Book Club: Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam

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 title of July’s book club pick – Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam – says it all, and as you can imagine, the story told is a wild ride! In 1917, John R. Brinkley arrived in the tiny town of Milford, Kansas where he set up a medical practice. This was a time of patent medicines, each often more outlandish than the next, and Brinkley had been creating and selling these quack remedies throughout the southeastern United States. In Milford he soon introduced a surgical method that used goat glands to restore the fading virility of local farmers – it was an instant hit despite being total nonsense, making Brinkley’s name famous and making him rich. Soon Brinkley was being pursued by Morris Fishbein, who swore to put America’s “most daring and dangerous” charlatan out of business. Charlatan tells this true story with all of its bamboozles, cons, and detective work, but it also explores the impact Brinkley had on politics, along with the world of broadcasting through border radio, musical genres, and even The Carter Family!

Left: Cover of Charlatan is black with ornate red font for the word Charlatan (main title), white font for the subtitle, and red font for the author's name. There is a white male billy goat in the center of the cover.
Right: Low, one-story building in a barren landscape with a massive radio transmitter behind it reaching up to the sky. XER is written above the building's doore.

The cover of Pope Brock’s Charlatan, and a photograph of XER’s radio transmitter on the border of Texas and Mexico. XER image found at www.theradiohistorian.org (probable “orphan” work)

Pope Brock is a writer, teacher, and DJ living in Arlington, Massachusetts. Along with Charlatan, he is the author of two other books: Indiana Gothic, about the murder of his great-grandfather, and Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon, a work of what might be called speculative nonfiction. Brock also writes for a host of other publications, and his articles have appeared in GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the London Sunday Times Magazine, amongst others.

Black and white headshot of author Pope Brock wearing a dark button-down shirt.

Pope Brock. Image from his website

Be sure to tune in on Thursday, July 23 at 11:00am to hear the book club discussion about Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam 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 book’s interesting story!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for August is Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch, which we’ll be discussing on Thursday, August 27. Happy reading!

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.