As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 20, 2005
So you thought country music was invented in 1927 when Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family recorded for Ralph Peer in Bristol, Tenn.? So you thought that Hank Williams was the original drunken driver on the Lost Highway and that Waylon and Willie were the original country outlaws?
Then get yourself familiar with Charlie Poole, a North Carolina banjo man whose unjustly short musical career and helped build the foundation for country music and whose short tragic life -- his drunken indulgences, his scrapes with the law -- became an early blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll excess.
Though scattered Poole compilations have been available through the years, Columbia Legacy this week released a three-disc Charlie Poole box set, You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me: Charlie Poole and The Roots of Country Music, with a classic R. Crumb cover and impressive liner notes by Hank Sapoznik, (a klezmer musician as well as author and scholar.)
But this 72-song box isn’t just a collection of Poole recordings. While Disc One is all Charlie, the subsequent discs include Poole tunes along with versions that preceded those recordings, and/or later versions by those who followed Poole. There’s even a song by a guy who bought Poole’s banjo when Charlie needed the cash in 1930. (This was Preston Young, who, with Buster Carter, recorded their version of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” years before Flatt & Scruggs.) In other words, you can hear what inspired him as well as who he inspired. It’s a glimpse of Poole’s entire musical word.
So who is this Charlie Poole character?
Born in 1892 in Eden, N.C., Poole was a mill worker, a bootlegger and a baseball player. According to Sapoznik, Poole’s three-finger banjo style developed from a baseball injury -- a drunken Poole made a bet that he could catch a ball without a glove no matter how hard it was thrown. He ended up breaking his fingers.
Poole began playing a self-made banjo fashioned from a gourd at the age of eight. He eventually was able to afford a proper store-bought banjo with his profits from running an illegal moonshine still.
In the early to mid 20s, Poole’s band The North Carolina Ramblers did their share of rambling. They gigged out west in Montana and as far north as Canada. Poole and company traveled to New York in 1925 -- two years before the Bristol sessions -- where they got a contract with Columbia Records. From that original recording session that July, Poole had his first 78 rpm hit : “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” backed with “Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight, Mister.”
“Deal” went on to become a Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass classic. “Sleep in Your Barn,” which has the basic melody of “Red River Valley” is a hobo song later recorded by bluegrass great Mac Wiseman and honky-tonk titan Hank Thompson. Country-western songwriter Hank Cochran refashioned it into a romantic ballad, “Can I Sleep in Your Arms.” which Willie Nelson included in his landmark Red Headed Stranger.
Sapoznik‘s description of Poole‘s live performances reads like something that would make Howlin’ Wolf or even Jerry Lee Lewis jealous: “By all reports, a Poole show was something to see. Punctuating sly twists on familiar songs with his rat-a-tat picking style, Poole would leap over chairs, turn cartwheels, clog dance on his hands, and shake up audiences with repertoire that was just as surprising. Typical sets would careen from prim, cautionary heart songs to a ditty usually reserved for bawdy house anterooms to fiddle tunes to over-the-top renditions of popular songs, before drawing to a close with a contemplative hymn.”
Indeed, Poole was no purist. He put his stamp on hoary old folk songs as well as Tin Pan Alley pop hits. He could sing historical ballads like “White House Blues” ( a remarkably un-mournful account of the assassination of President McKinley), maudlin sentimental tunes like “Husband and Wife Were Angry One Night” (in which a little girl pleads with her parents not to divorce), funny tunes like “The Hungry Hash House” and “The Man Who Rode a Mule Around the World,” drinking songs like “If the River Was Whiskey” and a call for temperance called “Goodbye Booze,” (which unfortunately Poole didn’t heed.)
And Poole took “coon songs” -- minstrel show novelty songs that made fun of Black people -- and scrubbed them of their racial overtones.
One such case was “It’s Moving Day.” Originally recorded in 1906 by Arthur Collins, it’s a “comically” take on a poor Black getting evicted by a landlord. But when Poole recorded it in 1930, evictions were commonplace for all races. Poole retains the song’s gentle humor, but shucks all of Collins’ shuck-and-jive.
Sapoznik’s description of Poole shouting down talkative audience members (“Did you people come here to talk or to listen?”) reminds one of a volatile scene from Elvis Presley’s movie Jailhouse Rock.
And in a description in the liner notes of a barroom bust by a Rorer descendant, Poole makes 50 Cent look like a wimp.
“One of the officers nabbed Poole. ‘Consider yourself under arrest,’ he told him. Never having been one to run from a fight, Poole replied, ‘Consider, hell!’ and came down across the officer’s head with his banjo, the instrument neck hanging down his front like a necktie. Another policeman pulled a revolver on Poole, who grabbed it as the two wrestled across the floor. The officer managed to get the barrel of the pistol in Charlie’s ear but as he pulled the trigger to kill him, Poole shoved the gun away so that it went off near his mouth. The explosion chipped his front teeth and left his lips bloodied and badly burned.”
The Depression killed Poole’s music career and booze killed Poole. He lost his recording contract by 1931. He died later that year, following a three-month booze spree, which Sapoznik says began as a celebration of an offer to appear in a Hollywood film.
The life and music of Charlie Poole seems like a worthy subject for a film.
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