By Wayne Erbsen
There are so many stories about Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers, that it’s hard to know where to begin. As one of nine kids, Charlie dropped out of school so early that he only learned to read and write as an adult. Growing up in the Haw River area of North Carolina, he was known as a prankster and a scrapper who never shied away from a fight. He was arrested so many times for his wild drinking and fighting that he was on a first-name basis with the local police. Many times when the police would arrive to arrest him, his affable personality would convince them to take him home with them, where they often shared their private stash of hooch.
Charlie’s fascination with the banjo apparently started when he was eight or nine years old, when he made his first banjo out of a gourd. After he started working at the Granite Cotton Mill of Haw River, he purchased a store-bought banjo for the princely sum of $1.50. It is likely that Charlie’s role model for the banjo was his cousin Daner Johnson, who played in a three-finger style. Daner, in turn, had come under the spell of the classical style of banjo playing that was popular in the northeast around the turn of the century. No slouch on the banjo, he once beat the legendary Fred Van Eps at a banjo contest held in St. Louis in 1904, winning a gold-plated S.S. Stewart banjo, which was soon stolen.
Like Charlie, Daner had itchy feet and constantly rambled from place to place. Later in life, his behavior became quite strange. Once known for his snappy attire, he grew a long white beard and dressed in old tattered clothes. He refused to sleep in his house and could frequently be found sleeping out in the woods with his banjo and his dog. Penniless, he would show up at someone’s back door, offering to play his banjo for something to eat.
In addition to working at Granite Cotton Mill, Charlie and fiddler Posey Rorer often made and delivered moonshine. Among their clientele were local judges and attorneys. While making moonshine, the pair would often play their banjo and fiddle with Charlie singing Don’t Let Your Brew Run Down. One time while he was playing music at a bootlegger’s joint, the place was raided by the police. In the wild fight that followed, Charlie came down on an officer’s head with his banjo,. The banjo neck reportedly hung down the officer’s chest like a necktie. Coming to the first officer’s rescue, another officer attempted to shoot Charlie, and the two wrestled with the revolver. When the gun went off, Charlie moved his head at the last second, and, instead of killing him, the bullet chipped a number of his front teeth. No wonder Charlie’s later publicity photos do not show him smiling!
By June 1925, Charlie and two co-workers, fiddler Posey Rorer and guitarist Norman Woodlieff, were determined to advance their music careers by making records. They quit their jobs at the mill, and when they went down to pick up their last paycheck, they brought their instruments and performed Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down for their fellow mill workers. Arriving in New York nearly broke, the trio got jobs while Charlie arranged an audition for Columbia records. When they finally auditioned at Columbia for Frank Walker, they played Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. Even before they had finished the song, Walker interrupted them with an offer to record.
Their first session was on July 27, 1925, where they recorded The Girl I Left in Sunny Tennessee, I’m the Man That Rode the Mule ‘Round the World, Can I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister, and Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down. For their efforts, the trio was paid a total of $75, which was nothing to sneeze at in 1925, and it sure beat working in the cotton mill! Released in September of 1925, Deal, as it was called, became a huge hit, eventually selling an astonishing 102,000 copies, no small potatoes, even now. Unfortunately, the band received no royalties for these first recordings.
The success of Charlie Poole’s records did more than make him a star in his hometown of Spray, North Carolina. He had a strong impact on untold numbers of rural musicians who widely copied not only his three-finger banjo style, but also learned many of the sentimental songs that he recorded. Many of these sad laments had originated in New York’s Tin Pan Alley around the turn of the century.
The make-up of Charlie’s band also had an influence on what would become bluegrass music. As opposed to the wild and wooly stringband style of Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers or Earl Johnson’s Clodhoppers, Charlie’s band was a tightly controlled performing unit where every note was perfectly in place. In contrast to Gid Tanner or Earl Johnson’s style of sawing out rough-hewn hoedowns on the fiddle, Charlie’s fiddlers, including Poser Rorer, Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith, all played with a smooth bow arm that set the style for later bluegrass fiddlers.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Portions of this article are excerpted from Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.