By Pauline Murphy
Charlie Poole was a banjo playing, hell raising bluegrass legend. He was born in North Carolina in 1892, one of thirteen children. Charles Cleveland Poole was his full name and his paternal grandfather had fled Ireland during the Great Famine and arrived in North Carolina in the 1840s.
In May 1929, Poole acknowledged his Irish roots when he wrote and recorded Leaving Dear Old Ireland with his band, The North Carolina Ramblers. This was at a time when Poole and his band were at their musical prime, and the jaunty bluegrass song about an immigrant pining for the old sod was just one of over sixty songs they recorded during their artistic peak.
Poole’s banjo playing was deemed not only the most unusual but the best. He developed a three-finger picking technique when, as a teenager, he tried to catch a baseball without a glove as a bet, and broke fingers in his right hand. He never received first aid and the fingers didn’t set properly, which resulted in them being permanently curled in towards his palm. He didn’t mind the deformity; he was more upset about losing the bet!
Poole started work in the local granite mill at the age of 12, but like many others in rural North Carolina, he was also a moonshiner. He bought his first banjo out of the profits he made from this illegal activity, and then set out to make a name for himself in the world of music, but his rough and rowdy behaviour always stood in the way.
At the age of nineteen, Poole met and married seventeen-year-old Maude Gibson, but settled life didn’t suit Poole. He was rambling around Canada with hobos when Maude gave birth to their son, James Clay. Some months later, the couple divorced.
In 1918, Poole was rambling around West Virginia, playing his banjo, when he met a crippled fiddle player called Posey Rorer and guitarist Will Woodlieff, and together they became the North Carolina Ramblers.
The trio got a contract with Columbia Records in 1925, but success would not last long for Poole, who was as much a legendary boozer as he was a legendary banjo picker! Later that same year, they were playing in a road house in Virginia when it was raided by police. Instead of fleeing out the back door with everyone else, Poole decided to take on the lawmen and hit one of them over the head with his banjo while beating another with Rorer’s walking stick.
Poole met his match when he tried to wrestle a policeman for his pistol and when the gun went off, Poole tasted lead in his mount. An arrangement was made for him to pay a fine instead of facing jail time.
This was just one of the many antics that filled the short life Poole lived, and his bad boy image did not hurt his chance at a second marriage when he married Posey Rorer’s sister, Lou Emma, who was ten years older than him.
Although he came from the heart of Appalachia, Poole did not want to be typecast as a Hilbilly, so he chose to don fine suits and bow ties, but his hell-raising drinking sessions would take the shine off the clean-cut suit wearing image he tried and failed to concoct on stage.
Posey Rorer left the band in 1928 after a heated argument with Poole. It turned out that Poole was being sent royalty cheques from Columbia Records to give to Rorer, but instead took the cheques to quench his thirst for liquor. It also soured his marriage to Rorer’s sister.
When the Great Depression hit America in the 1930s, it hit the music scene hard and Columbia Records cancelled The North Carolina Ramblers’ recording contract, but Poole was given a second chance when Hollywood came calling in 1931.
Poole was asked to play music in a film and he was given money by the film studio to purchase train tickets to L.A., but he never got to Hollywood. Poole spent the train money on six weeks of hard boozing and partying. His epic bender would result in the loss of his life.
On the morning of May 21st, 1931, Charlie Poole was at his sister’s house when he declared, “Old Charles been drunk a lot of times but this time old Charles is gonna kick the bucket!” Later that day, his heart gave in from the wildly excessive lifestyle he had been living, and 39-year-old Charlie Poole collapsed and died on his sister’s front porch.
Poole was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Spray, Rockingham County, North Carolina, and he lay there in an unmarked grave until a man from Omagh, Co. Tyrone, decided to give the bluegrass legend a grave marker in 1966.
Rodney McElrea launched a fundraising campaign through the pages of Country News and Views magazine, and when enough donations were collected, a fine granite headstone was erected over Poole and Rorer’s graves.
With a banjo engraved on the stone and a small picture of Poole, the grave marker reads: “Erected and dedicated by Rodney McElrea, North Ireland, and readers of Country News and Views.”
Charlie Poole was the original bad boy rock star whose life was full to the brim with stories of crazy antics and demonic drinking sessions that lasted from days to weeks at a time, but he still managed to make great music and set the standard for future country and bluegrass artists to live up to.