James Whitcomb Riley was born in October 1849 in Greenfield, Indiana. Though his father was an attorney and politician in state politics, Riley’s education was sporadic and he graduated eight grade at age 20. He like writing poetry but his understanding of proper grammar was poor. Riley picked up the cadence and character of the dialect of central Indiana and this heavily influenced the hundreds of poems he wrote in 19th century Hoosier dialect. The Civil War left his father wounded and the family destitute. Riley got a job as a sign painter which his poetic talents aided in sign slogans. His brother in Indianapolis gave some his poems to the newspaper THE INDIANAPOLIS MIRROR and over 20 poems appeared on the front page by 1872. Riley submitted poems to newspapers, performed with a group of actors and continued to paint signs. By 1879 he got a job as a reporter but was still disappointed by his rejection by east coast publishers.
In 1885 Riley with other mid-western writers organized the Western Association of Writers to promote authors who did not come from the east. In 1887 he performed with other writers including Mark Twain and was lauded for his dialect poems. His writing were soon carried by major newspapers and his fame spread. Riley participated in major poem reading tours with other writers making a fortune. His famous poems include “Little Orphant Annie” and “The Raggedy Man”. Since the mid-1880’s Riley has been the nation’s most read poet, a trend that accelerated at the turn of the century. Demand for his works was so large that the level of popularity he achieved has not since been surpassed by any poet in their lifetime. He has focused primarily on children’s poetry and his health is failing.
In 1912 Riley recorded readings of his most popular poetry to be sold by Edison Records. Here is “Out To Old Aunt Mary’s” recorded in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 5, 1912.