Some time ago I was informed by an ecstatic young Taylor Swift fan, who had just attended the pop star’s concert, how she played a banjo solo on stage. I was then told that Taylor Swift is best banjo player ever.
Well I completely and utterly beg to differ. Just because you go ahead and pick a few notes for a few seconds on a stage in front of screaming adoring fans doesn’t make you a Charlie Poole!
Who? I hear you ask, well let me enlighten you with the story of probably the best banjo basher of them all.
Charlie Poole began life way back in 1892 when he was born in North Carolina. He developed a three finger picking technique for the banjo which ultimately brought him fame, and such a technique arose after he broke his thumb while playing baseball as a youth. Like many others in rural North Carolina, Poole was also a moonshiner and bought his first banjo out of the profits he made from his illegal activity. Along with his brother-in-law and a friend, he formed 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 booze hound as he was a legendary banjo picker. One only needs to listen to some of Poole’s songs which were primarily about boozing and bad behaviour to know what kind of a character he really was.
He was from the heart of Appalachia but Poole did not want to be typecast as a Hillbilly so he chose to don fine suits and bow ties, yet his hell-raising drinking sessions would take the shine off the clean-cut suit-wearing image he concocted on stage.
The fiddler in the band, Poser Rorer, left in 1928 after a bitter 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.
When the great depression hit America it hit the music scene hard and Columbia cancelled the North Carolina Rambler‘s recording contract. Poole ended up working in a textile mill shortly after that but then Hollywood came calling in 1931. Poole was asked to play music in a film and was given money by the film studio to purchase train tickets to L.A.
Poole never did get to Hollywood. He instead took the train money and spent it on six weeks of hard boozing and partying. Poole’s epic bender would result in the loss of his life. At the age of 39 he collapsed on his sisters front porch and died. His heart gave in from the wildly excessive lifestyle he had been living.
After his death the legacy of Poole extended beyond the hell-raising tales, it can instead be heard in the many recordings he made with his band. Poole’s banjo picking set the standard for future bluegrass and country artists. His style was melodic and no doubt made that way due to his old baseball injury. With The North Carolina Ramblers, Poole recorded over 60 songs including ‘White House Blues’ and ‘Take a Drink on me.’ Poole never wrote original songs but he did take old standards and change the words in order to mould them into his own form.
‘Goodbye Booze’ is just one of those songs which stank in irony and Poole certainly knew it, while the up tempo ‘Take a drink on me’ tells you exactly what to do. Poole was the original bad boy rock star whose life burst to the brim with stories of crazy antics and demonic drinking sessions that lasted from weeks to months at a time, but he still managed to make great music. Charlie Poole is not as famous as the likes of Taylor Swift and his music is sometimes snubbed by arrogance, but he will always be a much better banjo player then the modern day blond pop star and his music will surpass any twenty second banjo solo played to thousands of screaming kids.