Archive for August, 2009

Charlie Poole

August 23, 2009

[Charlie Poole- in his early twenties.]

The last week has seen a flurry of news and reviews that concern the man who may be Randolph County’s most famous native musician. All the publicity arises over the release of Loudon Wainwright III’s excellent new album, “High Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.”

I first read the story in the Washington Post [Charting the Deep Waters of Old-Timer Charlie Poole], and then heard a really great interview with the singer by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=13 ].

Courtesy of my friend Tom Hanchett, music historian and a curator at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, here are a couple of more story links: Rogue State: High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project and I [from the Washington City Paper]; Loudon Wainwright III leads salute to bluegrass legend Charlie Poole [New York Daily News]; Loudon Wainwright dives into country music’s past [The Tennessean ].

But this story is new only in that Loudon Wainwright’s double-CD album is new. Back in 2005 the excellent 4-disc box set “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music” (Legacy/Columbia Records) was produced by old-time banjo player Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, and Charlie Poole was the subject of symposium at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is also remembered annually at the Charlie Poole Music Festival in Eden (www.charlie-poole.com), so it appears that we’re in the midst of a full-blown Poole revival.

On September 28, 1985, the first (and only) Mill Village Music Festival was held in Franklinville, as part of the Franklinville Fire Protection Association’s annual “Fun Day.” (That was something volunteer fire departments used to do before tax support meant they didn’t need to raise money the hard way anymore). Local musician Gary Lewis produced the show, which had a number of bluegrass and old time musicians playing, including Poole biographer Kinney Rorrer’s group the Sweet Sunny South String Band. (Rorrer’s 1982 book Rambling Blues: The Life and Songs of Charlie Poole is the definitive biography.)

[Bob Johnson of Millboro showing the Poole house to a Greensboro News and Record photographer in 1984).

The reason I engineered this special event in Franklinville was to call attention to the fact that Charles Cleveland Poole was born March 22, 1892, in Millboro, part of Franklinville Township, in a tiny house still standing on the south side of the road from Millboro to Worthville.   Poole’s Wikipedia entry [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Poole ] is actually incorrect on this point, but his Dictionary of North Carolina Biography entry [ http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/movingday/bio.html ] gets it right.

With all this awesome documentation available, I won’t run through his whole life story, but I will sum up the significance of Charlie Poole like this:

Charlie Poole (L) and The North Carolina Ramblers.

After Poole and his band “The North Carolina Ramblers” went to New York in 1925 and recorded “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” for Columbia Records, American popular music was never the same. At a time when there were no more than 600,000 record players in the south, their recording sold 102,000 copies—five times more than any other record that year. Up until that time, “hillbilly music” had never sold more than 20,000 records, and Poole’s success led the music industry to seek out new performers such as Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family. Poole didn’t write his own songs, but combined elements of ragtime, blues, Victorian parlor songs, and even the old minstrel music popular before the Civil War, with his own unique three-fingered style of banjo picking.

[The Charlie Poole bithplace in Millboro, Randolph County, 2009.]

Poole is identified with the mill village of Spray in Rockingham County, where his family moved in 1916, but his formative years were without doubt spent in Randolph County. Both his father Philip Poole and mother Betty Johnson Poole had been mill workers at Haw River in Alamance County, and their relocation around 1890 put the family in the center of the Deep River mill villages.  The house is more or less equidistant between the Worthville mill to the west (with the Randleman mills another 2 mills west) and the Cedar Falls mill to the southeast (with the Franklinville mills another 2 miles east).

Millboro had just been created in 1889 when the “Factory Branch” of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway had reached that point from Climax.

[The last remaining early store in Millboro]

For several years while construction of the line continued towards Franklinville and Ramseur, Millboro served as the shipping point for all the mills in the area, and a number of stores and boarding houses grew up in the area.

The Halliday hunting lodge in Millboro was a prominent draw for sportsmen, and featured its own shingle-style water tank above the tracks (see entry FT:10 in my book, p. 93).

By all accounts, Charlie Poole was already playing the banjo before 1900.  Poole’s first wife said she once had a photograph of him as a child, playing a banjo made out of a gourd. Only after Poole began work in one of the mills could he buy himself a real banjo for $1.50.

One story has Poole’s distinctive banjo-picking style growing out of a childhood accident where Poole caught a baseball bare-handed, breaking his thumb and permanently deforming his dexterity and grip.

Daner Johnson

But another story, from Homer Johnson and Loray Allred of Randleman, says that their uncle Daner Johnson taught Charlie Poole to play the banjo in Johnson’s own distinctive style.

Daner Johnson and his brother “Nep” (Napoleon P.) Johnson were first cousins to Poole’s mother, and Daner Johnson was 13 years older than Poole. According to Homer Johnson, Daner Johnson told Charlie Poole to “throw away them finger picks—anybody who has to use a pick can’t play a banjo.”

Daner Johnson popularized banjo-picking not just in Randolph County, but all over the region.  It was said that at age 25 Johnson won a gold-plated banjo by beating banjo recording star Fred Van Eps in a competition at the 1904 World’s Fair (officially, the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition”) in St. Louis. (As an aside, the St. Louis World’s Fair created the 20th century American diet: among the foods first popularized at the Fair were hamburgers, hot dogs, the ice cream cone, peanut butter, cotton candy, Dr. Pepper and iced tea!)

Daner Johnson must have been a major influence on Charlie Poole’s ability to play their shared favorite instrument. Johnson and Poole continued to play together as adults, on visits to Poole’s sister’s home in Spray, or Johnson’s brother’s home in Draper.

[Daner Johnson tombstone at Melanchthon Church, Liberty, NC.]

Daner Johnson was almost as much a “rambling man” as Charlie Poole; he never remarried after the death of his second wife Pearl from pneumonia, and wandered from friend to friend, playing music, doing farm work and drinking heavily. He died in 1955 and is buried in the cemetery at Melancthon Lutheran Church near Liberty.

[Addendum:  I’m indebted to a post at banjohangout.org [http://www.banjohangout.org/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=155578 ] for a reference to Patrick Huber’s book “Linthead Stomp,” which features Charlie Poole’s photo on the cover.  Says Barnes and Noble, “Linthead Stomp celebrates the Piedmont millhand fiddlers, guitarists, and banjo pickers who combined the collective memories of the rural countryside with the upheavals of urban-industrial life to create a distinctive American music that spoke to the changing social realities of the twentieth-century South.”   Huber explores how the culture of industrial work and mill village life contributed to the music of Poole, Fiddlin’ John Carson, the Dixon Brothers, and other pioneers of the mis-named “hillbilly music.”  Finding the roots of old time string bands in mill village culture fits right in with Randolph County’s pioneer contributions to cotton mill village life.]

Addendum:  Reading through the local columns of The Courier, the local Randolph County newspaper, for 11 August 1927, I discovered this note:

“A reunion of the Poole family will be held at Nixon’s Pond, Sandy Creek, on State highway 62, Thursday August 11.  A picnic dinner will be served.  All relatives and friends of the family are urged to attend.  Charlie Poole, of near Leaksville, promises to have his string band at the reunion.  Mr. Poole’s band has recently been playing for records for the Edison Phonograph Company, and have been in New York City for some time on this mission.”