Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music (5.3.05)

Posted on July 28, 2008



Looking up at you from the 40-page liner notes to the box set released in his honor this month, the Dumbo-eared and nervous-looking Charlie Poole seems to be waiting for someone to notice him. After a short but hard-lived six-year career in music, Poole died at the end of a “twelve week alcohol binge” [!?] in 1931, having already sold his banjo and given up his band in favor of work at a North Carolina mill. He helped define the sound of country music forever, but nobody today has a clue who he is. Producer and scholar Henry “Hank” Sapoznik has made it his personal mission to make sure Poole finally gets some attention with You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me: Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music.

The three-disc set comes in a nostalgic cigar-style flip-top box, etched with a snappy illustration of Poole by R. Crumb and a booklet full of vaguely creepy, old-timey photos and Sapoznik’s thorough bio of Poole. The short story is that Poole, who had the fingers of his right hand crippled when he botched an attempt to catch a fastball on a drunk bet, learned to play banjo anyway and built an entire stylistic repertoire for every country singer since-and this is on top of inventing bluegrass banjo and drafting the checklists for outlaw rock star hopefuls: Drink the rest of your bandmates’ paychecks? Check. Get shot in the face by a cop? Check. Perform cartwheels onstage? Check (and sweet!).

The recordings are all transferred from ancient 78s and wax cylinders-so they sound like they’re being piped in from a basement through the heating ducts. Given some time to adjust, you’ll discover tons of bizarre, rewarding finds in this collection. Witness one of the first recorded versions of “White House Blues,” the cynical retelling of President William McKinley’s assassination that includes Poole’s faux-lament, “Hush up, ya children, don’t you fret / You’ll draw a pension out’cher papa’s death.” Hear original recordings of comically offensive minstrel songs like “Monkey on a String” and “Coon from Tennessee” next to the Poole versions, which he streamlined and purged of racial goofs and performed as though he wrote them about himself. Check out some weird, slice-of-life skits about sitting around with the boys that Poole was hung up on for awhile (and that the rest of the band seems to be improvising against their will).

Poole’s intricate banjo playing cuts through all the songs with crisp strolling melodies and ratchety strumming. He taught the rest of the country how to lift songs from all styles and play them any way you wanted, recording nearly 70 songs and, at one point, selling five times as many records as anybody else in the business at the time. Once the Depression hit full swing, though, nobody could afford his records or shows and the labels dropped him in favor of more fashionable blues artists. Now, 74 years later, Charlie (and the world) gets another chance.

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 5.3.05]