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Spevak: Lesley Riddle's story may sound familiar

He was a Southern black man who helped shape American music in the late 1920s. He moved to Rochester, gave up music and lived in obscurity for two decades before he was re-discovered during the mid-1960s blues and folk revival.

He resumed his career, touring and recording before his death. A few years ago, his life even inspired a musical.

That story is one we know well here in Rochester.

But I'm not talking about Son House, the iconic bluesman.

It is also Lesley Riddle's story.

Ken Burns is the Canadian native who has turned documentaries celebrating American life and culture into a personal franchise. Jazz, baseball, the Vietnam War. This Sunday on PBS, Burns presents his new Moby Dick of a history.

"Country Music" is eight episodes, 16½ hours. As always, Burns digs deep into the roots of his subject. You get the feeling he doesn't really give a damn about Garth Brooks. As he tells it, country music died with Johnny Cash.

Burns' "Country Music" opens in the right place, right time. Bristol, Tennessee, 1927, with the most seminal of country bands, The Carter Family.

Lesley Riddle was there. He and A.P. Carter spent years traveling the Appalachian countryside on songwriting archeological digs, searching out the traditional music that is the foundation of country. Two men who sang and played guitar, but who must have been a curious sight in the segregated South. Riddle was a black man with one leg, which he'd lost in a cement factory accident when he was a teenager. Carter was a white man with a persistent palsy tremor.

Just as Son House was an influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, when Riddle and A.P. Carter returned with their latest cache of songs, Riddle would teach Maybelle Carter his guitar technique. Like Django Reinhardt, who re-invented how he played the instrument after losing some fingers in a fire, Riddle's style made up for having lost two fingers in a shotgun accident. He used his index finger to play the melody while his thumb kept the rhythm on the bass strings.

Born in North Carolina in 1905, raised in Tennessee, and often going by the first name of Esley, Lesley Riddle married and in 1942 moved to Rochester, where his wife had relatives.

A year later, House moved to Rochester. There are some vague accounts that, early on, the two men played together a bit, but soon both simply … disappeared. House gave up music for a series of jobs that included time as a railroad porter. Riddle sold his guitar and worked at a shoeshine stand, and as a school crossing guard.

House's rediscovery is legend. Three white musicologists, obsessed with the black music heritage of America, found him in Rochester in 1964. His career re-ignited, House played Rochester clubs, then folk festivals, and recorded new music. Then with his health failing, he moved to Detroit to be with family, and died of cancer of the larynx in 1988.

Riddle's rediscovery is less a legend, but it is virtually the same story.

Folk singer and intense folklorist Mike Seeger, half-brother of Pete Seeger, had been collaborating with Maybelle Carter, who told him about Riddle. Brownie McGhee, who'd played with Riddle when they were teenagers, suggested Riddle might be living in Rochester. And that's where Seeger found him, in 1965, a year after Son House's resurrection.

Seeger convinced Riddle to pick up the guitar, and to even join Seeger and The New Lost City Ramblers for gigs at some local clubs. Riddle was soon invited by the band on trips to folk festivals.

During their 13 years together, Seeger also made recordings of Riddle. Songs that Riddle had helped The Carter Family learn. And songs that he'd likely written himself, although their origins were usually buried in layers of revisions as they were passed from hand to hand.

Riddle was a longtime smoker. In fact, he'd been smoking since he was 5 years old. And it caught up with him. Lung cancer. His wife now dead, Riddle moved back to North Carolina to be with family, and died in 1979.

Several years ago, Rochester's Geva Theatre Center commissioned a musical, "Revival: The Resurrection of Son House." Likewise, in 2009 a theater company in Burnsville, North Carolina, where Riddle was born, created one of its own. "Esley: The Life & Musical Legacy of Lesley Riddle." The second act takes place in Riddle's living room in Rochester, with much of the dialogue drawn from Seeger's taped interviews with Riddle.

A collection of the music that Seeger recorded in Rochester with Riddle was released in 1993. "Step by Step: Lesley Riddle Meets the Carter Family: Blues, Country and Sacred Songs" reveals Riddle as a world-weary yet spiritual vocalist with a jangly guitar. The perfect intersection of Southern blues and country folk.

The title track of that collection, "Step By Step," is one that we know was written by Riddle. While he lived in Rochester. A gospel-inflected piece, it was inspired by his time as a crossing guard, watching school kids crossing the street, step by step.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.