A native of Randolph County, Charlie Poole grew up in Alamance County in a cotton mill village and later became one of the best banjo musicians in the Southeast and a Columbia Records superstar before his premature death. He started the country group North Carolina Ramblers and was known for his three-finger style banjo playing.
Born in Randolph County, Charlie Poole had a rough-and-tumble early life that foreshadowed his later years. While a child in the cotton mill village, Poole worked in the mill and enjoyed playing the banjo and baseball. He also acquired a reputation for brawling and had several encounters with local police. At nineteen, he married his first wife and was divorced ten months later. He then moved to Eden (the town today claims to be his homeplace). During this time (and even later in life) Poole disappeared frequently for weeks at a time. In between occasional nights in jail and playing his banjo, Poole found time to distill whiskey.
In 1923, Poole and a friend formed the North Carolina Ramblers. At first Poole worked as a part-time musician, but in 1925, he quit his mill job and devoted all his occupational attention to music. The three members of the North Carolina Ramblers went to New York City and auditioned for Columbia Records. The company signed them to a deal.
Poole’s professional music career started with a boom. His singles did remarkably well (102,000 copies of his first release and 60,000 for his second release); Columbia executives considered 5,000 copies to be a hit. Unfortunately for Poole, he did not receive any royalties.
While Poole ramble across the Southeast playing his banjo, Columbia Records tried to locate him to record a second time. The next time, Poole made sure that he received royalties. On the market, his releases performed as well as his first ones, and the Randolph County native was described as “the best known banjo picker and singer in the Carolinas.” After his second recording, Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers experienced stardom. By his third recording, Poole had competition from similar sounding groups, and his instrumental recordings sold only moderately well. Although his vocals sold better, his instrumental recordings and unique banjo style had more influence on bluegrass.
Poole continued to travel and play concerts across the eastern United States. He and his band used pseudonyms to avoid copyright infringements with Columbia Records. Poole’s concerts were known not only for the music but also for his cartwheels and jokes in between songs. Poole’s drinking habit, however, started to damage his musical career and his relationships with fellow band members. Money was spent as soon as it was received, and some band members did not receive their part of the royalties because Poole had cashed and squandered all.
The Great Depression unsurprisingly affected record sales. His fourth recording sold less than 1,000 copies. After a drinking spree, Poole died at age 39.
Eden, North Carolina hosts a festival every year to honor the country musician: Annual Charlie Poole Music Festival.
Bluegrass Messengers, “Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers” bluegrass messengers.com (accessed April 16, 2010) and Charlie Poole Music Festival, “About,” CharliePoole.com (accessed April 15, 2010).