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Backtrack: The Riley Festival

Kids inspired the “Hoosier Poet,” who gets celebrated this month at the 50th annual Riley Festival.

The year the Civil War ended, James Whitcomb Riley left his Greenfield home at the age of 16 for the kinds of adventures many young men only dreamed of. He wandered the state with a friend, painting houses and signs, and eventually landed in a traveling medicine show writing jingles. Appealing to the everyday listener would prove to be Riley’s enduring talent.

When Riley returned home, he began a career in journalism before being recruited by the Indianapolis Journal to write for the poetry column. After several years here, Riley’s writing was in such demand that when he published a pamphlet of his poetry in 1883, it sold over half a million copies. He would go on to publish more than 40 books of poetry.

What made Riley so wildly popular was writing in dialect. Verses like W’y, The Raggedy man – he’s ist so good, / He splits the kindlin’ an’ chops the wood reflect the language of people he knew himself. Riley thought preserving the Hoosier dialect was a worthy endeavor, and along the way attracted the common man, who felt like he was listening to a friend.

James Whitcomb Riley as a young man during his days of odd-jobbing around the state.Courtesy Indiana Historical Society

This style garnered the attention of children and led him to write poetry with them in mind. Riley’s most famous and enduring work, “Little Orphant Annie,” was inspired by a waif named Allie whom his family had taken in during the Civil War; due to a printing error, her name was changed. The 1885 story of Annie was just one of the many poems that made Riley’s popular among young people during his life and today.

By 1912, Riley’s health had begun to decline, and in order to keep his voice in circulation, he recorded some of the world’s first audiobooks. You can listen to him read selections like “When the Frost is on the Punkin” and “On the Banks of Deer Crick” in the Indianapolis Public Library’s digital archives, then join his devotees at the Riley Festival, whose theme this year is vintage Riley: “The Old Swimmin’ Hole.”

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