Ahead of the 2014 International Folk Alliance Conference Showcase this week, we present a wonderful documentary on legendary folk/banjo pioneer Charlie Poole for your listening pleasure.
Charlie Poole (March 22, 1892 – May 21, 1931) was an American old time banjo player and country musician and the leader of the North Carolina Ramblers, an American old-time string band that recorded many popular songs between 1925 to 1930.
He learned banjo as a youth. Poole also played baseball, and his three-fingered playing technique was the result of a baseball accident. He bet that he could catch a baseball without a glove. Poole closed his hand too soon, the ball broke his thumb, and resulted in a permanent arch in his right hand.
Charlie Poole and his brother-in-law, fiddler Posey Rorer – whom he had met in West Virginia in 1917 and whose sister he married – formed a trio with guitarist Norman Woodlieff called the North Carolina Ramblers. The group auditioned in New York for Columbia Records. After landing a contract, they recorded the highly successful “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” on July 27, 1925. This song sold over 102,000 copies at a time when there were estimated to be only 600,000 phonographs in the Southern United States, according to Poole’s biographer and great nephew, Kinney Rorrer. The band was paid $75 for the session, which would be approximately $950.20 in 2011 dollars (Consumer Price Index).
Poole played the banjo. The guitar was played by Norman Woodlief, and later by former railroad engineer Roy Harvey from West Virginia. Fiddlers in various recording sessions were Posey Rorer, Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith.
The North Carolina Ramblers, a banjo-guitar-fiddle trio with Poole’s plain-spoken tenor voice in the lead, in great part created the musical templates for two giants: the bluegrass of Bill Monroe and, by extension, the lyrical aspects of the modern country music of Hank Williams. Bill C. Malone, in his important history of country music, “Country Music, U.S.A.” says, “The Rambler sound was predictable: a bluesy fiddle lead, backed up by long, flowing, melodic guitar runs and the finger-style banjo picking of Poole. Predictable as it may be, it was nonetheless outstanding. No string band in early country music equalled the Ramblers’ controlled, clean, well-patterned sound.”
For the next five years, Poole and the Ramblers were a very popular band. The band’s distinctive sound remained consistent though several members came and left, including Posey Rorer and Norm Woodlieff. In all, the band recorded over 60 songs for Columbia Records during the 1920s. These hits included: “Sweet Sunny South”, “White House Blues”, “He Rambled”, and “Take a Drink on Me”.
Poole was essentially a cover artist, who composed few, if any, of his recordings. Nevertheless, his dynamic renditions were popular with a broad audience in the Southeast. He is considered a primary source for old-time music revivalists and aficionados. Songs like “Bill Morgan And His Gal”, “Milwaukee Blues”, and “Leavin’ Home”, have been resurrected by banjo players. Poole developed a unique fingerpicking style, a blend of melody, arpeggio, and rhythm (as distinct from clawhammer/frailing and Scruggs‘ variations).