Charlie PooleMarch 06, 2012
Charlie Poole (Vocals, Banjo)
Date of Birth: March 22, 1892
Place of Birth: Randolph County, North Carolina
Date of Death: May 21, 1931
Place of Death: Spray (Rockingham County), North Carolina
An itinerant textile mill worker by trade and upbringing (like many North Carolina musicians), Charles Cleveland "Charlie" Poole developed a unique 3-finger banjo picking style that anticipated the later Bluegrass style of Earl Scruggs, due to an injury to his hand when on a drunken dare. He had deliberately caught a fast-pitched baseball barehanded, breaking several fingers that never properly healed, and thereafter permanently curved in toward his palm.
He had learned to play the banjo at age eight or nine, possibly from local banjoist Daner Johnson who, like Poole, played in a pickless three-finger "parlor" style, and well enough that in a contest at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, he beat nationally famous banjoist and recording artist, Fred VanEps.
After growing to maturity in the Alamance County cotton mill community of Haw River, Poole relocated to Spray (Rockingham County), North Carolina (near Eden) in 1918. In 1917, Poole had begun playing with his brother-in-law, fiddler Posey Rorer (b. September 22, 1891 in Franklin County, Virginia; d. March 1935). They frequently honed their chops while cooking moonshine together in the employ of local bootleggers. Guitarist Clarence Foust was added in 1922 and the group became known as the North Carolina Ramblers by 1923. Their first recordings were made for Columbia on July 27, 1925, in New York City, with Norman Woodlieff replacing Foust on guitar. Roy Harvey (b. March 24, 1892 in Monroe County, West Virginia) replaced Woodlieff by September 1926. Due to a disagreement, Rorer was replaced by fiddler Lonnie William Austin (b. 1905; d. April 1997) in 1928.
Poole continued to play and record with other musicians including his son James Clay "Charlie, Jr." Poole, b. 1913). Charlie Poole & His North Carolina Ramblers became one of the most prolific and popular string bands of their time. Many of their songs, such as "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," "Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister?" and "I'm The Man That Rode The Mule Around The World" have become bluegrass and old-time music standards.
Poole's fortunes turned with the onset of the Great Depression. His hard-living, hard-drinking ways caught him unprepared for the economic down-turn, and his recording career faltered. His last recordings were made on September 9, 1930, for Columbia in NYC with Harvey on guitar, and Odell Smith on fiddle.
Subsequently, his performances were mostly limited to local dances and rural illegal drinking spots where Poole's scrapes with local law enforcement (a pastime Charlie cultivated and enjoyed since his boyhood — although it was not uncommon for Charlie to be required to play for and entertain arresting officers rather than be simply locked up) are the stuff of legend. He once broke his banjo over the head of a sheriff, and disarmed and beat several out-of-jurisdiction North Carolina deputies into submission with Posey's walking stick (Posey was hobbling in bandages recovering from an extensive surgery to repair his badly deformed clubbed feet) after they attempted to arrest him during a performance at an illicit joint across the Virginia border. Poole emerged from the fray "bloody . . . but unbowed" according to his grand-nephew, Kinney Rorrer.
In 1931, Poole was offered an opportunity to go to Hollywood and appear in a motion picture Western, a move he hoped would restart his flagging career. While celebrating the occasion, Poole succumbed to a heart attack brought on by his binge drinking at his sister's home in Spray, North Carolina.
Poole also played with "The Highlanders" (Lonnie Austin, fiddle; Odell Smith, fiddle; Lucy Terry, piano; Roy Harvey, guitar) on Columbia in NYC in early May 1929. These selections were released on other labels as being by "The Tennessee Mountaineers," "The Mountaineers," and "Chumbler's Breakdown Gang." The same personnel recorded a series of four sides for Brunswick in NYC on May 11, 1929 as "The Alleghany Highlanders."