edited from “Linthead Stomp” by Patrick Huber:
Charlie Poole extolled the raucous, wild life of society’s outcasts on his famous reinterpretation of the great African American composer W.C. Handy’s 1917 blues composition, “Beale St. Blues.” It remains unclear whether Poole actually visited Memphis’ famed Beale Street during his travels. But what is certain is that he fully participated in the raucous subculture he depicts in “He Rambled” and “Ramblin’ Blues,” drinking bootleg whiskey, gambling, getting into fistfights and close scrapes with the law, sobering up in small-town jails, and perhaps even soliciting prostitutes.
Far from a homebody himself, Poole may have recorded songs about life’s seamy underside because their antisocial ideology so closely corresponded with his own. Both of these selections elevate the selfish pursuit of excitement and pleasure over steady productive labor and responsible citizenship. As such, they promote immediate gratification rather than a New South capitalist ethos of industry, self-discipline, and thriftiness.
And unlike the North Carolina Ramblers’ sentimental ballads, neither of these songs expresses any regret for or guilt about someone or something left behind or lost. Nor do the colorful characters within them aspire to a respectable working-class life of family, home, steady jobs, and church attendance. These gamblers and rounders clearly prefer instead to live a shiftless, nomadic life on the margins of “decent” southern society. Like Poole, they found their own social and cultural niche outside of the American mainstream.
Several of Poole’s biographers have stressed the correlation between what is know about Poole’s life and the many rounder songs that he and the North Carolina Ramblers recorded. “If any old-time country music singer ever ‘lived’ the words he sang,” writes Kinney Rorer, “then surely it was Charlie Poole. One could almost string together a biography of Poole from the words to the seventy songs he recorded between 1925 and his untimely death in 1931.”
In February 1931, a Hollywood motion picture company hired him to bring his band to California to perform in a low-budget western. Poole celebrated by assembling a crew of his hard-drinking buddies and embarking on a marathon thirteen-week bender, part of which he spent carousing in southwestern Virginia and playing music when the mood struck him.
On May 21, 1931, less than two weeks before he was to leave for California, Poole collapsed from a heart attack on the front porch of his sister’s home in Spray, NC. He was thirty-nine years old. His death certificate listed his occupation not as a musician or recording artist but as “mill worker” and noted that his heart attack was brought on in part by “intoxication 13 weeks.”