Charlie Poole Says Goodbye To Booze

Of all the stories, lies, tall tales, legends and rumors told about old Charlie Poole today is the anniversary of one verifiable fact; his death.

He died at age 39 from gross negligence of the liver and if the accounts are to be believed he was the roughest, ramblingest, drinkingest, and without a doubt, funniest of all our country music outlaws. The stories rise above him as myth. He once stole a trolly and drove it all around town. He would bet men $0.50 that he could cut the brim off their hat and then magically reattach it by blowing on it. He always paid up his debt. The man once got in a fight with a police officer trying to arrest him. Naturally, Poole slammed his banjo over the cop’s head. The cop pulled his gun and tried to shoot Poole in the head. Poole knocked away his hand and took the bullet in the mouth instead. Witnesses said that’s when he got mad.

You Ain’t Talkin’ To Me

Charlie Poole came cut from a different stock of man than most of us do these days. He had seven brothers and one sister and biographer Kinney Rorrer writes of a childhood growing up in a mill-town, living in a mill owned home and passing the time by fighting, drinking, playing music or doing all three, often at the same time. It seems that if a person passed two Poole brother’s fist fighting in the street it was best to let them be in fear of them uniting on a new common enemy. It’s a mistake though to see them as troubled or causing trouble. People must be viewed through their own time and Charlie’s friends and family and neighbors thought of him as a rambler, harmless mischief maker and most of all a fantastic musician. He was certainly all of those things.

Ramblin’ Blues

Charlie was playing the banjo by age eight or nine and had learned a three fingered picking style rather than the more common clawhammer style that was popular. His picking isn’t exactly what Earl Scruggs would do a few years later and remains firmly in the string band mold, but as a proto-bluegrass banjo picker his influence can not be denied.

It’s partly this bluegrass connection that I believe has denied Charlie Poole his place alongside The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in the birth of commercial country music. Scholars and musicologists far more learn-ed than I may disagree as their knowledge comes from “books” and “research,” while mine comes mainly from booze-filled-marathon-listening-sessions and half remembered liner notes, but none-the-less I stand (or lean as the case may be) by my thoughts.

In one of those half remembered liner notes author and radio man, Hank Sapoznik, tells us that at one point 1 in 6 southerners owned a Charlie Poole 78 record. For a world where the phonograph was still relatively new that’s an incredible number of records sold. Clearly Poole had a large following in the traditional string band market. As his career went on though his music, as it would for so many others to come, begins to smooth out. The wonderful old time fiddler Posey Rorrer’s short bow is replaced by the more classically trained longbow (also terrific) of Lonnie Austin. Poole’s singing, while still boozy and garbled, sounds more like a drunken Al Jolson than a typical stringband singer. Poole certainly had his sights on bigger markets, more record sales and, wait for it, more money.

Poole had all the makings of a honkytonk star. He sang about his mother and the old home place, about girls and whiskey. He sang about getting sober and falling down once again. At times he was droll and sarcastic and then would sweetly sing of moonlight shinning down upon a broken romance or a daughter’s wish for her battling parents to reconcile. He was ultimately born too early to truly become that star, but remains the patron saint and cautionary tale for every hard country singer to come.

One Moonlight Night

Charlie Poole’s drinking finally caught up to him in the winter of 1931. His health had forced him to stop touring and his career seemed to be on the decline. His doctor had told him that if he kept drinking he would die and he even seemed to be trying to curb that when Hollywood came calling. They wanted him for a western. In celebration of the news Poole and an old buddy of his bought a car and rambled through the southeast on a six week binge. When he finally returned home to sober up even Charlie knew his time was up. Biographer Kinney Rorrer writes that on the morning of May 21st, 1931 Charlie Poole told some of his neighbors that “old Charlie’s been drunk a lot of times, but this time old Charlie’s going to kick the bucket.” He died at his sister’s house later that day.

Goodbye Booze


About Iaan Hughes

Iaan Hughes is a deejay on 91.3 KBCS in Seattle. He plays country & western music.
This entry was posted in Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Honky Tonk, Music, Oldtime, Pop, Radio and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Charlie Poole Says Goodbye To Booze

  1. auntmama says:

    I think the stories about Charlie Poole get funnier the further away you are. When I go back to Windy Gap and talk to the children of parents who housed Poole, got him out of jail, put him there in the first place…they haven’t started laughing yet…great post. thanks as always, auntmama

    • Iaan Hughes says:

      I’m sure he did put a few people out in his time, and certainly the humorless Puritan streak lives on in some, but without a doubt Charlie was beloved by most. That includes many families that would put him and his band up for often a week or two at a time. They would play music at night, community dances on weekends, church on Sundays and help in the fields during the day in exchange for their room and board. I hope you get the chance to talk with some of the children from the other side at some point.

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