Hard-Living Tar Heel Charlie Poole A Pioneer of Banjo Music

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Recently I was thumbing through my copy of Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the Old North State, an anthology of collected essays by noted historian H. G. Jones. (He wrote a weekly column from 1969-1986.) The editors Randell Jones and Caitlin Jones, unrelated to the history columnist, write that the columns were (and are) “entertaining stories about the heroes and the ne’er-do-wells who make Tar Heel history so colorful.” One such Tar Heel was Charlie Poole (1892-1931), a musician born in Randolph County, who grew up in nearby Alamance County.

Like many in the Piedmont during the early 1900s, Poole worked in a textile mill. He also landed various jobs in Virginia and West Virginia before returning to North Carolina, winding up in Rockingham County. From the mill town culture, North Carolina Ramblers were formed and Poole’s music took a professional turn while the United States fought in World War I. Although Poole had performed in various states by 1924, Poole and his band had not yet peaked.

Taking a trip to New York City in 1925, Poole, Posey Rorrer, and Norman Woodlief recorded with Columbia Record Company. “North Carolina Ramblers” was a bestselling, prolific success, selling more than 100,000 copies, according to Jones. Biographer Clifford Kinney Rorrer points out that the typical country music recording of the time sold about 5,000 copies. In other words, “North Carolina Ramblers” was a hit; the group’s fame had spread from Piedmont mill towns to Appalachia and the Southeast and later to the nation. And they were no one-hit wonders. Despite the success and popularity, though, the group disbanded in 1928.

The Ramblers name stayed with Poole as the banjoist continued performing and recording with other fiddlers and guitarists. His catalogue of work includes “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues,” “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister,” “Hesitation Blues,” “White House Blues,” “Sweet Sunny South,” “Budded Roses,” “If The River Was Whiskey,” “He Rambled,” and “There’ll Come a Time.” With his meteoric rise to fame during the mid-to-late ‘20s, he recorded other bestsellers, too, on the Columbia, Paramount, and Brunswick labels. After the stock market crash in 1929, record sales dipped, and Poole no longer was “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

In 1931, though, he accepted an invitation to go to Hollywood and record a song for a Western. Although Poole looked forward to an opportunity to revive his career, he never made the silver screen. For years, he had lived his life in fast forward, and it came to an end, a day less than two months before his 40th birthday. After a long celebratory spree, Poole succumbed to a heart attack.

Poole had played the banjo since his early childhood. As a boy, he made his first banjo from a gourd and taught himself to play. (He later was able to buy banjos costing hundreds of dollars.) Poole had an unusual playing style that added to an uncommon Ramblers sound that incorporated ragtime and popular sounds. Poole’s “three-finger style” influenced later and more popular banjoists and bluegrass and country stars.

He probably picked the banjo the only way he could possibly do so. In his younger days, he had injured his thumb and broke some knuckles playing baseball, which was both popular and competitive in mill towns across the early 20th century South. The injury probably led to the “three finger style” and made precision an absolute necessity.

Each June, the Charlie Poole Music Festival, held at Governor Morehead Park in Eden, across the street from the mill where Poole worked, features an evening of performances by old-time and Americana musicians and a day of banjo, guitar, fiddle, vocal, and band competitions for all ages. For details, visit charlie-poole.com.