I learned something this week: There are no artists of color performing at the upcoming Riddle Festival, an annual event celebrating Lesley Riddle. What you need to know here is that Riddle was an African-American musician from Burnsville who greatly influenced the Carter Family. So think about that for a minute: The first family of country music has a black musician to thank.
Lesley “Esley” Riddle, right, with guitarist Brownie McGhee.
This is not the only story where mountain, Appalachian, country, folk and roots music — much of which seems so of the domain of white folks — is actually closely tied to and even originating from the creative efforts of people of color. But because the white narrative has long been the dominant narrative, people of color tend to be diminished or overlooked or left out altogether. Or not invited to participate in a festival commemorating a person who looks like them and represents the history, hopes, talents, and ingenuity of their community.
I don’t think the organizers behind Riddle Fest intended any harm or slight, but I do think these kind of oversights pile up, one on top of the next, until we really can’t see past them anymore. Words like “appropriation” get bandied about — for good reason — but I see a greater harm. Yes, when white musicians record and profit from the songs of unrecognized musicians of color, it’s plagiarism and intellectual theft. If the original artist isn’t being uplifted and his or her family compensated for payment that the original artist never received, the crime is compounded. But there’s also a social implication: Not only are we white folks complicit in perpetuating white supremacy (I know: The term calls to mind Klan robes and skinheads in red boots — it actually means maintaining a narrative and system wherein the needs of white people are valued above, often at the cost of, the needs of all other groups), we are deteriorating the rich tapestry of our collective human story.
By writing some people out of that story, we lose track of their contributions, their talents, they unique points of view, their voices in the choir. We paint with fewer colors, sing with fewer notes, dance with a limited vocabulary. I could go on. But think of all the musicians we don’t know about because they were be written out of our collective history in order to maintain a prominent and dominant place for white artists. Think about this: Old-time music wasn’t only made by white folks. But can you name a black artist (other than members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) in that genre? And aren’t you curious to know who those under-recognized artists are, what they sound like, what tunes of theirs could be shared right now?
So it’s important that Lesley Riddle was a black man, and it’s important that the black community is part of any celebration of him, and any carrying forward of his music. It also matters that while Riddle was key to the Carter musicians becoming The Carter Family, the Carters were early inductees to the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, but Riddle has yet to receive that distinction. In fact, only one artist of color — Piedmont blues dynamo Etta Baker — has thus far been inducted into that organization in its nine-year tenure.
We need to collectively care about these disparities and not allow them to stand. There’s too much at stake. Too much art, and therefore humanity, is being lost to the revisionist history we have — even if unwittingly — agreed to.