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The Master Thief

The new Charlie Poole box set is a lesson on the nature of genius.

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"You Ain't Talkin' to Me": Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music

(Columbia/Legacy)

Charlie Poole's crisp, percussive banjo work was the source of modern bluegrass playing: in the 40s, when that stream diverged from the river of southern country, masters like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs took a bit of Poole with them. But he's important for other reasons too. Born in 1892, Poole lived smack on the edge of many transitional zones in southern music and culture: between the North Carolina highlands and the Piedmont region, between rural and industrial society, between the age of music as an oral tradition and the age of music as a product spread promiscuously through radio and recordings. With his wry, crackly delivery, which put an inimitable stamp on even the hoariest old standard, he was as good at projecting his presence across the airwaves as FDR would turn out to be.

But if folks know only one thing about Poole's life, it's that he ended it early. He drank himself to death in 1931, when he was 39 years old. The Depression was hurting him badly--his ticket and record sales were dwindling, and he was forced to borrow a banjo for his last recording session, in September 1930, having parted with his own for a down payment of $50. He was working in a textile mill, just as he had been when his career took off five years before, and after Columbia canceled his contract he started drinking even more heavily than usual. Though in his final days Poole was solicited to record music for a Hollywood film--there was a train ticket to California on his dresser when he died--he celebrated his good fortune with a suicidal 13-week bender.

There's nothing like self-destruction and a premature exit to get a legend going. Sometimes it seems like the archivist class thinks it's more interesting and honorable for an artist to succumb to his demons than overcome or at least survive them: Hank Williams may not be more revered than Johnny Cash, but he got his turn a lot sooner.

Much of Poole's catalog has been out of print for decades, but his recordings have never been especially hard for fans of early country to track down. In 1982 Kinney Rorrer, a history teacher and the grandnephew of Poole's fiddler Posey Rorer, published a biography of Poole, and the man's music has long been a standby on the ubiquitous old-timey radio shows of western North Carolina and Virginia. What makes the three-CD set "You Ain't Talkin' to Me": Charlie Poole and the Roots of Country Music (Columbia/Legacy) valuable isn't that it digs up any dusty forgotten gems--there's nothing previously unissued here--but that it creates a context for Poole's innovations.

Poole's recording career lasted less than six years--he went into the studio only during his sporadic visits to New York--but the example of Robert Johnson proves that a slender oeuvre can be milked for decades. This sort of fetishization, and the slapdash packaging and repackaging it encourages, tends to bolster the unfortunate notion that a great talent like Johnson arises magically out of nowhere and has to leave as soon as he's gotten all the genius out of his system. The Poole box addresses this problem by adding other artists' versions of tunes he recorded, material that influenced him, and tracks by artists who he obviously influenced in turn.

This kind of thing really does need a book to explain it, and New York banjoist Henry Sapoznik--the project's producer, as well as a music scholar and executive director of the folk-arts nonprofit Living Traditions--has written a fine one. (Rorrer also contributes a short introductory essay.) The tone's sometimes a bit dry for the subject--a guy who once had his front teeth chipped by a policeman's bullet in a drunken brawl--but you don't come away wondering what all these other songs are doing alongside the work of Our Hero. And looked at a certain way, the dryness is a form of respect, like the way Poole slicked down his hair and dressed up in a nice suit to take the big city by storm. Old 78 labels and sepia-tinted 80-year-old photos of street scenes in New York City and Randolph County, North Carolina, do a nice job setting the tone.

The box set also serves as a corrective to another bit of wrongheaded thinking about traditional music: the longing for pure or authentic forms that never existed. They're romanticized fictions, the good-cop answer to all the ugly hillbilly stereotypes--during the mining uprisings of the 20s, newspapers portrayed mountaineers as troglodytes who'd never seen a toilet and couldn't possibly appreciate the salutary side effects of industrial capitalism. What Alan Lomax and Harry Smith and Smithsonian Folkways got weren't authoritative portraits but rather frozen snapshots of something always in motion. The combination of the African banjo and the European fiddle in mountain music may have been an irresistible metaphor for the meeting of two cultures, but the mutation and hybridization neither started nor ended there.

Still, for most of the 20th century, the culture of the rural south has been seen as a museum piece, a tourist attraction, something delicate and endangered--the maintenance of historic sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina started way back in the 1930s. Many a young player has studied the music of Poole and his contemporaries to pay homage to the past, and often the ones born and raised in the hills--sometimes relatives of the great figures of yore, or working in decades-old string bands whose names have outlived all their founding members--are just as guilty of this nostalgic oversimplification as outsiders. But Poole himself was very much a man of his present, and seemed more than eager to project himself into the future. The restless, flashy, freewheeling music on this collection of 78s often seems more modern than anything on Ralph Stanley's latest T-Bone Burnett-produced museum piece.

Poole was a voracious listener, picking up gestures, inflections, and sometimes whole tunes not just from jazz and blues but from vaudeville, black gospel, square-dance music, ancient English folk, and the enduring trove of 19th-century popular songs about dead children and Civil War soldiers, all of which informed the southern repertoire of his time. Poole made his home base in old-timey music that was redolent of nostalgia, loss, and grief, and as a singer he was talented enough to bring considerable conviction to material like "Where the Whippoorwill Is Whispering Good-Night," a lament for practically an entire generation--but in life he wasn't the type to mourn a lost past or a faded culture, and certainly not a lost cause.

Disc one is the main attraction: it's unadulterated Poole, mostly with his crack trio the North Carolina Ramblers, though original fiddler Posey Rorer and original guitarist Norman Wordlieff were both replaced during the band's run. (To evade contract restrictions, Poole and company also recorded as both the Highlanders and the Allegheny Highlanders, on those dates using a second fiddler and a pianist.) Besides "Where the Whippoorwill Is Whispering Good-Night" and "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues"--Poole's first real hit, recorded in 1925, it sold 102,000 copies, a high-water mark he'd never reach again--there are graceful mountain waltzes, snarky rural joke songs, and a few examples of the warning-to-young-folks morality tales that had become an Appalachian subgenre (for instance, "Old and Only In the Way," which history would render somewhat ironic, first for Poole and later for Jerry Garcia). Poole's drawl scrapes against Rorer's sweet swaying line on "The Highwayman," and he wrings so much heartbreak out of the weeper "Baltimore Fire" that you'd think he'd witnessed the inferno personally. On "Shootin' Creek," where fiddler Lonnie Austin replaces Rorer--he'd quit after a dispute over royalties, and though Poole was married to Rorer's sister, the two men never spoke again--the band rides a breakneck groove like white water. And though "Husband and Wife Were Angry One Night" is about as sentimental as family ballads get, Rorer's fiddle tone is rough and almost primitive, as if the child narrator were sawing out the melody, and Poole's melancholy singing freights the tune's cross-stitch-sampler moral with the weight of the world.

Disc two is more of a slog, though it does give us a good idea just how Poole and his Ramblers stacked up against their contemporaries. Poole's versions of songs are placed alongside roughly contemporaneous versions by artists he influenced or who influenced him. Poole's aren't necessarily the most archetypal or even the most moving, but he always thoroughly inhabits the material, putting his feet up on its table and demanding a drink. Also included is his signature number "You Ain't Talkin' to Me," one of many minstrel-show tunes that he stripped of its shuck-and-jive, all but neutralizing the racial connotations. Another is "Monkey on a String," presented here in both its Cal Stewart theatrical rendition--possibly the most irritating song committed to acetate until "Disco Duck"--and Poole's improbably dignified redux, transformed by the casual luminosity of Rorer's fiddling. The disc also contrasts Arthur Collins's very New Yorky vaudeville version of the droll tenement-dwellers' lament "Moving Day" with Poole's more somber down-home take, a reminder that the have-nots in the city share common ground with their country cousins, should they care to find it.

Disc three pulls a few similar stunts: there's not all that much you can do with a tune called "Coon From Tennessee" (performed here by the Georgia Crackers), but Poole's ever-present sense of droll sorrow gives his version a startling richness and intensity. By and large there are more tracks here by Poole's influences: his idol, banjoist Fred Van Eps, contributes "Dixie Medley" alongside Poole's "Southern Medley," and Uncle Dave Macon, a fingerstyle banjoist like Poole, is represented by "Uncle Dave's Beloved Solo."

This compare-and-contrast approach displaces both the Great Man theory and the notion of traditional musics as static and isolated, alluding instead to a much richer reality: that of a culture reacting and responding to itself in a time of great stress and transition. You might think Poole would be making like Johnny Cash if he were alive today, seeking out "edgy" material from Trent Reznor and Nick Cave, but from what I can tell he'd be just as likely to make off with a Justin Timberlake tune or some sappy Elton John ballad from a Disney movie--and I get the feeling he'd approve of Dolly Parton's attempt at "Stairway to Heaven." It all goes to show that there's no way to lock your song away and keep it pure. If the North Carolina Ramblers don't get you, somebody else will.

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