Charlie Poole


Charles Cleveland Poole (March 22, 1892- MAY 21, 1931) — Born into a family of North Carolina cotton mill workers, Charlie and his family moved from Iredell County to Randolph County finally settling at Haw River in Alamance County around 1900.  Poole acquired a love of banjo music before he reached his teens learning to play on gourd banjo that he made for himself.  He was heavily influenced by his older cousin, Daner Johnson,  who finger picked the banjo in a classical style on the model of such players as Fred Van Eps.  As a child laborer in the local cotton mill spinning room, Poole earned enough money to buy a real banjo for $1.50.  Poole’s early marriage ended in part due to his extreme wanderlust, which took him as far as Canada and Montana. During a “ramble” to West Virginia he encountered a crippled coal miner named Posey Rorer who was an exceeding fine old-time fiddler.  In 1920, Poole became Posey’s brother-in-law after marrying Posey’s sister Lou Emma who worked in the cotton mills in Spray (now Eden), North Carolina.  From 1920 until his death in 1931, Spray would be Poole’s home.  Apart from working from time to time in the Spray Cotton Mills and making moonshine whiskey with Posey in Franklin County, Virginia, Poole and Rorer spent more and more of their time making music.  Aside from playing for country dances, the duo played at courthouses, train depots, mill gates, etc. busking for coins. 

In the winter of 1924-1925 they, along with Poole’s childhood friend and guitarist Clarence Foust, played a series of fiddle contests in West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee organized by a traveling preacher who eventually ran off with all of their money.  Poole and Rorer usually won the top prizes in their respective categories and though they never received any money for their efforts, they did establish reputations as outstanding musicians.  In the summer of 1925 Poole along with Rorer and fellow musician from Spray, guitarist Norman Woodlieff, quit their local jobs and headed to New York.  Poole, who was illiterate at this point in his life, boldly decided to try to get an audition with a major record company in the city.  His courage paid off when Frank Walker, the recording director for Columbia Records, decided to give the band, now dubbed the North Carolina Ramblers, a chance to record.  Though the band received only $ 75 for their four songs recorded on July 27, 1925, the venture proved very profitable for Columbia.  The first release, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” b/w “Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister” sold a phenomenal 102,451  copies at a time when a hit record was considered to be anything that sold over 20,000.  The next release, “The Girl I Left In Sunny Tennessee” b/w “I’m the Man That Rode The Mule ‘Round The World,” sold another 65,582 copies. Poole went on to sell more than 569,000 records for Columbia alone not counting his recordings on Paramount and Brunswick.  His “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” was the 15th best selling record issued in Columbia’s old time music series of 782 different records.  Poole’s snappy singing style and his sharp 3-finger banjo picking along with the tight fiddle work of Rorer and Woodlieff’s  smooth guitar runs made the band’s sound very distinctive and catchy.  The hit records put the North Carolina Ramblers in great demand as they were now freed from the cotton mills to pursue music full-time.  Poole and the band returned to New York six more times to record.  These sessions produced the very first recorded versions on such songs as “White House Blues,” and “If I Lose” that are still sung and recorded by bluegrass musicians today.

Posey Rorer, Charlie Poole and Norman Woodlieff – The North Carolina Ramblers. Photo courtesy of Kinney Rorrer

Other Poole recordings such as “Sweet Sunny South,” “Goodbye Mary Dear,” “Budded Rose,” “There’ll Come A Time,” “Milwaukee Blues,” and “Leavin’ Home” among others are still revered by fans of old-time music.  Though the band underwent personnel changes with Roy Harvey of West Virginia replacing Norman Woodlieff and Lonnie Austin and then Odell Smith replacing Posey Rorer, the band continued to maintain the same high quality of musicianship.  Spin off bands from the North Carolina Ramblers such as those led by Roy Harvey and Posey Rorer also produced important recordings including the very first recordings of “Footprints in the Snow,” and “I’ll Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” in 1931.  These bands had a heavy Charlie Poole influence, including 3 finger banjo picking and long bow fiddle style.

In the spring of 1931, Poole received a contract from a Hollywood studio to bring his band to California to play back-up in a movie.  During a prolonged celebration of what would have been a great opportunity to bring Poole’s sound to a wider audience, Poole suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 39.  Poole in his short career had won many new fans to rural traditional music.  His colorful personality and antics made him a legend in his own time and that legend continues to this day.  Tales are still told around the cotton mill towns and mountain villages about the time that Charlie Poole came to their town.  He was, and still is, loved by his fans

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