By Moe White –
The Urban News asked playwright Jeff Messer how it came about that he wrote Esley, his play about black musician Lesley Riddle—and why the title.
“Esley” was Riddle’s nickname, said Messer. “That’s just what people who know him called him.”
Messer first heard about Riddle when Parkway Playhouse producer Andrew Gall approached him a number of years ago.
“They had a story of this local man, who had done this incredible thing, and went largely unknown for most of his life. I was intrigued by the story, despite not knowing much about the Carter Family or the music of that era. The story was what sold me: a black man, who became such an important part of the Carter Family, and even influenced their sound at a time when racial tensions were at a renewed level in the South.”
For in-depth research, Messer reached out to Riddle family members who still lived in the Burnsville area, through such contacts as resident Larry Howell. He also had, on loan from UNC in Chapel Hill, the complete audio recordings that Mike Seeger had made with Riddle in the mid-1960s in his home in Rochester, NY.
The recordings provided “over 12 hours of songs and stories that helped me weave the tale, and actually use full quotes from the man himself within the script,” said Messer. He also noted, “The versions of the solo songs Esley plays in the show, are not the more recognizable versions, but the originals as he remembered them from the 1920s. So, while a great many songs in the show are familiar to the audience, they are also hearing these versions for the first time.
“This made it more challenging for the performers … to figure out how to play the songs differently than the familiar methods, based on those Seeger recordings.”
Though the Parkway Playhouse revival of Esley ended July 11, the play lives on, and Messer hopes for additional productions not just in WNC but elsewhere as well.
Jeff Douglas Messer is an Asheville playwright, author, and radio personality. The Jeff Messer Show airs Monday-Friday at 3 p.m. on 880-AM The Revolution. His book, Red-state, White-guy Blues, about North Carolina’s radical Republican government, was published in December 2014 by Pisgah Press, LLC.