Stories handed down about Charlie Poole paint the Piedmont banjo raconteur as a helpless slush, a nomadic rambler and a penniless trickster whose charm and ballyhoo immortalized him with all who crossed his path–three traits that surely build a legend. Now, a UNC symposium and upcoming box set, You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music, seek to shift the gonzo lore to a studied discourse dropping Poole smack-dab in the gap between the country and bluegrass continuum. Update the history books, the missing link of roots music has been (re)found.
“If Bill Monroe was the father of bluegrass, than Charlie Poole was the grandfather,” says Kinney Rorrer, Poole biographer and great-nephew.
“I believe what Robert Johnson was to the blues, Charlie Poole was to country music,” says Henry Sapoznik, reissue producer, as he lays the gauntlet down. “He was the patron saint of country music.”
Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia have both praised Poole, regularly heralded by collectors of Jurassic music and 78s, though he’s remained a faint crosshair on the heart of country due to his short career and early death. Like Charlie Patton, whose harrowing blues was resurrected by a Grammy winning reissue in 2003, Poole’s unbridled, often-aggressive playing style and reedy vocals carry an earthiness and sly grimace that’s often too bold for fans of modern country’s soft corners.
“I am amazed at how shallow the popular history of country music is,” Sapoznik says. “So Poole came before the beginning of country. He died before there was a real fan-driven audience. I don’t think the country music world sees it that clearly. Maybe this will put it in sharper perspective.”
Poole’s life reads like a tall-tale of hard living through wits and ends in early death. At age 9 he worked the mills and learned banjo from his cousin, champion player Danner Johnson. Grouping with guitarist Norman Woodlieff and fiddler Posey Rorer as The North Carolina Ramblers’ first version, Poole’s vision pushed the three into distinctly uncharted musical precision in 1925 that resulted in the debut single “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” selling 102,000 copies. A glowing sphere of contrasting cords and arpeggio movements propelled the songs with melodic grace and brimstone urgency. The Ramblers sound as if they’re crawling through your speakers, strings in hand.
“On a certain level, even though he was not the first person to record country music, you listen to this stuff and it embodies the past. You listen and hear the 19th century. Poole was the first person that you can listen to and hear the past and the future,” Sapoznik says. “He invented a language that you hear on his first record, and that language is how people still play country music.”
Poole didn’t write his own songs; he selectively mined the century’s down-luck tales and minstrel tunes, Victorian ballads and Tin Pan Alley pop into his own sphere of sculpted, three-finger or claw-hammer style banjo. His hard-hitting renditions of tunes like “White House Blues” and “If the River Was Whiskey” became the definitive versions.
Poole recorded and issued nearly 70 songs for Columbia, and another handful under altered names and different labels, between 1925 and 1930 before drinking himself into the ground in 1931 at age 39.
“Charlie is as roots as you can get. He knew what he was talking about, he lived the life,” Rorrer says. “He was genuinely bonafide.”
Columbia owner and box set label Sony had nary a recording for this set. Instead, 17 collectors loaned their coveted 78s and cylinders to complete the picture. The set is not a compete discography; one is already issued by the County label. Instead, Sapoznik opted to configure Poole’s universe by tracking 40 favored Columbia sides and 29 pieces of orbiting artists that feed the muse, like Arthur Collins, Billy Murray and Eddie Morton, and provide the definitive remastered versions of the recordings. To top if off, You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me is packaged in a replica cigar case with original R. Crumb art, label reproductions from 78s, detailed liner notes and rare pictures of Poole.
“I wanted to create an environment where someone could listen to Poole and understand what he had done. And the only way to get the amazing contribution he made is to hear who came before him, who he was listening to, and those surrounding him,” Sapoznik explains. “That is something that has never happened. You can listen to the records that he listened to and hear who influenced him. As the box opens up you get this sort of back and forth thing going, you hear Cal Stewart’s 1902 ‘Monkey on a String’ and then Poole’s version.”
If the box set isn’t enough to open a few eyes to Poole’s place in roots music, the impending wave of Poole ephemera and tribute will. A Poole symposium, organized by the Southern Folklife Collection, starts Friday with national scholars and Sapoznik’s keynote address. There’s also state legislation honoring Poole for his influence on country music, an in-the-works documentary film, Gibson’s reissue of Poole’s Mastertone banjo, and the 10th annual Poole Music Festival in Eden set for May.
Symposium on Charlie Poole takes place 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday, April 8 at Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. Free and open to the public, attendees should RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org. Nightlight will host an old-time jam featuring symposium players, including Kinney Rorrer, at 9 p.m. Friday.