Bob Riley was one of the earliest and most successful raft pilots in the Upper Cumberland logging industry of the late 1800s, becoming a popular tall-tale figure in Tennessee folklore. Born in 1855 in the Clay County community of Fox Springs, Riley was one of the first raft pilots to take large drifts of logs from Celina to Nashville. Riley became well known for his knowledge of the river and for his cunning and courage.
Once arriving in Nashville, rafters gathered in large groups to swap stories and jokes, and characters such as Riley quickly grew to mythical proportions. In folklore, Riley became “Uncle Bob” Riley, a character who combines traits of Huck Finn and Brer Rabbit. He came to be a sympathetic trickster figure who uses the anonymity of the traveler to get what he wants and the freedom of the river to escape the consequences of his actions.
In one story, Riley steals a calf and puts it on his raft. By the time the owner arrives to retrieve it, Riley has put the calf in boots and a raincoat and tells the owner the calf is actually his brother who has just died of smallpox. Out of either respect for the dead or fear of the disease, the owner leaves the raft without looking at his calf. Uncle Bob plays the lovable rogue who uses his wits to get away with petty theft.
In other stories, he is a prankster who creates havoc simply for the fun of it. For example, one story portrays him on a raft that approaches a river baptism. As a Tennessee storyteller, Herman Burris, told the story in 1983, Uncle Bob suddenly appears in the middle of the crowd “strip, stark, stark naked, not a rag on, a’bawling like a bull.” According to such stories, people along the Cumberland River watched and worried that Uncle Bob Riley might be floating on a raft to do something disruptive. As with many historical figures who become folk heroes, such stories often combined real events from Riley’s life with stories associated with other folk characters.
William Lynwood Montell, Dont Go Up Kettle Creek: Verbal Legacy of the Upper Cumberland (1983); Elizabeth Peterson and Tom Rankin, Free Hill: A Sound Portrait of a Rural Afro-American Community, Traditional Song, Narrative, and Sacred Speech from Tennessee (audio recording and typescript, 1985)