Charlie Poole (1892-1931) and his North Carolina Ramblers were one of the most exciting and influential stringbands of 1920s. He and his band created a unique fusion, melding mountain fiddle tunes, “classic” banjo picking, minstrel songs, Tin Pan Alley, and ragtime syncopation. The sound he created was markedly different from that of his contemporaries and was directly related to his experiences in the industrialized mill towns of the North Carolina and Virginia Piedmont. Poole also had a dramatic impact as a banjoist. His incredible record sales helped bring his unique three-finger picking style into the home of many a would-be banjoist across the Southeast, helping make three-finger picking the dominant style in commercial country music.
In the early 1920s, while making their living as millhands, Poole, fiddler Posey Rorer, and guitarist Norman Woodlieff found time to ramble through the Piedmont of North Carolina and Virginia playing music at dances, parties, and fiddle contests. In 1925 the threesome went to the mill where they worked and gave the floor boss their resignation. They then sat down in the middle of the factory and played one last song for their fellow workers. As they finished, Poole said “Goodbye boys, we’re gone!” They then headed to New York City, where Poole walked into Columbia Records and talked Artists & Repertoire man Frank Walker into recording his band. The result was a hit record for Columbia. “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down/Can I Sleep In Your Barn Tonight Mister” sold over 100,000 copies. This was at a time when anything massing over 5,000 sales was considered a good selling record.
The success of their first session allowed the threesome to begin traveling throughout eastern Virginia and into West Virginia to play for large crowds in the coalfields. During one of these trips Poole met guitarist Roy Harvey on a streetcar running between Bluefield and Princeton. Harvey noticed Poole and his band walk into the streetcar with instruments and went to see if he could play a song with them. Poole must have been impressed because he soon took Harvey on as his regular guitarist, to remain with him throughout his recording career.
Roy Cecil Harvey was born in Monroe County, West Virginia in 1892. By age six Harvey could tune a guitar perfectly. Local musicians would travel to the Harvey house to have the “pitch-perfect” youngster tune their guitar. In his mid-teens, Harvey went to work for the Virginian Railway, becoming the youngest engineer the Virginian Railway had ever employed. In 1923, the Virginian Trainsmen called a strike, which they eventually lost. Displaced from a career that he loved, Harvey landed work as a streetcar operator, leading to his initial encounter with Charlie Poole.
Poole was still in the process of pulling together what he hoped would be a modern sound. Roy Harvey proved to be the perfect complement. Unlike his predecessor Norman Woodlieff, who was a square dance player, employing a simple strumming rhythm, Harvey was an accompanist and picked the guitar in a “parlor” style, using a thumb and three fingers.
The unique influences that each of the Ramblers brought to bear in the string band format helped create a sound that was distinct and new. At an early age Poole was exposed to the classical banjo picking of Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman. As an adult he absorbed the recordings of African-American ragtime guitarist Blind Blake and the Tin Pan Alley tunes of Andrew Sterling and Harry von Tilzer. Meanwhile, Roy Harvey was also an avid student of contemporary music. His melodic picking patterns were one incarnation of his studies. He incorporated accented ascending and descending bass runs throughout the course of a song. Harvey used these melodic arpeggios to contribute to the intricate interplay between his guitar, Poole’s banjo, and Rorer’s fiddle. This sound anticipated bluegrass, a form that would not come into its own until nearly 15 years after Poole’s death.
Poole was not only a trailblazer musically. He also embodied the beginning of an archetype in country music–the restless rambler whose hard drinking and hard living created great legend. Poole’s wanderlust took him through the North Carolina Piedmont, up into the Virginias and Ohio and as far west as Montana and as far north as Canada. When heading out on “tour” he would simply start walking down the road and when someone stopped and asked where he was going, he’d reply “Wherever you are” and jump in. He was a powerful entertainer who was influenced by the vaudeville touring companies that came through North Carolina. During his performances, it was common for Poole to jump over a chair and land standing on his hands or do cartwheels across the stage. Once, on a bet, he jumped headfirst into a pallet of eggs. Fellow musicians tell stories of him saying he needed to step out for some air and not returning for six weeks. It seems that everyone who came in contact with Poole had a story to tell. Many of these stories involve his affection for moonshine. His heavy use of alcohol became more severe as his career waned during the Depression, eventually taking his life and bringing an early end to a prolific and influential recording career.