Some boys fall in love with girls while other boys fall in love with a banjo. Charlie Poole was one of those boys who fell in love with a banjo. It became his abiding true love.
Charlie Poole was born in Statesville, North Carolina and grew up in Alamance County in a cotton mill village and became one of the best banjo musicians in the Southeast. Poole had a strong interest in music at a young age and made his first banjo from a gourd. He later bought a real banjo for $1.50 and taught himself how to play. During this time Poole worked in the spinning room of the Spray Cotton Mill and bought a fine Orpheum #3 Special banjo with money he earned making whiskey in Franklin County, Virginia in the early 1920’s. Poole traded in the Orpheum (used in his 1925 and 1926 recordings) for a Gibson Mastertone.
The story goes that Charlie loved to play baseball and once bet someone he could catch a fastball with his bare hands. Unfortunately, he closed his fingers just a bit too soon and the baseball broke his thumb and gave his fingers a permanent arch in his right hand. That crooked hand was the secret to his success because he developed a unique finger picking style of banjo playing that was different and distinct from the clawhammer/frailing style or the three-finger Scruggs style of playing the banjo.
Charlie Poole formed the country group, The North Carolina Ramblers with brother-in-law, Posey Rorer and Norman Woodlieff on his first recordings in July of 1925. The group went to audition in New York City and signed with Columbia Records. Their first release, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” sold over 102,451 copies at a time when a hit record for Columbia’s old time series was 20,000 in sales. Poole’s total sales for Columbia was over 569,000 copies.
The group continued each year from 1926-1931 to record with Columbia and by 1931 the Ramblers had sold almost one million records. Poole recorded over 60 songs for Columbia during the 1920s and became standards among Bluegrass and Country music musicians, those recordings included “Sweet Sunny South,” “White House Blues,” ”He Rambled,” “If I Lose”, “Old and Only in the Way,” “Milwaukee Blues,” “There’ll Come A Time,” and “Take a Drink On Me.”
After his death at age 39, in 1931, The North Carolina Ramblers band ceased to exist although both Posey Rorer and Roy Harvey continued recording for a short while with other musicians producing the first recordings of “I’ll Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Little Footprints in the Snow.”
A three-CD box set entitled You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music was released in 2005 and was nominated for three Grammy Awards. A tribute CD to Poole by Loudon Wainwright lll called “High Wide and Handsome” also won a Grammy.
Poole’s recordings became a primary source for old-time music revivalists and aficionados and his songs have been recorded by John Mellencamp, the Chieftains, the New Lost City Ramblers, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, David Davis, Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead.
Charlie lived in Spray (now Eden) from 1920 until his death and since 1995 Eden, North Carolina has hosted a festival for a number of years to honor the country musician: The Annual Charlie Poole Music Festival.