Charlie Poole embodied the wild and reckless spirit of the 1920s. Known as a rambler and a rounder, banjo player, singer, and bandleader, Poole was a popular recording star from 1925-1931, recording a repertoire that includes dozens of songs that remain in today’s country, bluegrass, and old-time cannons. With his group the North Carolina Ramblers, Poole made notable and influential recordings of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues,” “White House Blues,” “If I Lose, I Don’t Care,” “Sweet Sunny South,” and many other well-known songs and tunes. Though few today play in his banjo style, Poole’s three-finger picking technique was influential amongst the next generation of banjo players, who developed the bluegrass style.
Charlie Poole grew up in the cotton mill belt of Piedmont North Carolina. He had a second cousin who was an excellent banjo player in the classical style popularized around the turn of the century. Poole loved playing the banjo, and soon he was rambling around the country, busking with his banjo. During one of his trips, he met a fiddler named Posey Rorer, and the two began playing music together.
Around 1920, Poole and Rorer moved to Spray, North Carolina, in Rockingham County, where Charlie married Posey’s older sister. The two men continued to play music together, and they won many top prizes at fiddlers’ conventions around the region. In 1925 they had the opportunity to make a recording for Frank Walker, an A&R man for Columbia. They recorded “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” and “Let Me Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister,” and the record sold an amazing 102,000 copies. At the time, a successful country recording might be expected to sell 5,000-10,000 copies. Poole’s next recording sold 60,000, and Columbia knew they had a success. Poole ended up recording nearly 70 sides for Columbia before his death in 1931.
Aside from making recordings, Poole and his group enjoyed giving performances, and they were known to have played all over the region, particularly in mountain and coal mining communities. Poole would ramble around, playing music and traveling for months on end before returning home to Spray. Poole’s primary guitar player was Roy Harvey, and fiddlers included Rorer, Lonnie Austin, and Odell Smith, all excellent musicians. Charlie Poole biographer and relative Kinney Rorrer wrote of the North Carolina Ramblers’ music, “It was a sound that would not be duplicated until Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys brought it back nearly a generation later.”