Adam Hill muses on Charlie Poole and humanity
Hey, it’s Adam Hill. If you’ve not already done so check out my book Old Timer’s Blues set in Nashville in 1973. It’s a time trip. I did all the research, all you gotta do is buy the ticket.
Old Timer’s Blues is about Stringbean, the banjo playing Grand Ole Opry Star, who along with his wife was killed in his cabin by wild eyed miscreants. I dig old time players with grit so last week I read Linthead Stomp by Patrick Huber. Linthead Stomp compiles short bios of various pre war country artists, most notable for me was Charlie Poole. The book left me wanting to read Rambling Blues by Kinney Rorer, which is totally focused on Poole. Rambling Blues is only available used on Amazon in the $70 and up range! That’s a bummer, but in this world of having every book at your fingertips it’s a cool breeze blowing over the ennui of everything you want when you want it malaise. I’m left to enjoy the wonder, “Well how good of a book is it?” If that doesn’t make sense to you, I probably wouldn’t make sense to you.
Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers played house parties, where the host would call the party line operators and they would “broadcast” the band over the phone lines. That’s thrilling. Technology to implication to extrapolation. New meaning to “party line.” Charlie stole a trolley car and drove it to another town. He got arrested for the Ron White Special of being drunk in public multiple times. He was fast and hard. He had no business being anyone but Charlie Poole.
I don’t want to idealize the past. There were always hecklers. There were always bad shows. I feel like in 1928 if you stumbled into town and didn’t get beat up or arrested and you were handy with a banjo, you’d be surrounding by the breathless and writhing.
This music has provenance that is irreplaceable. The American Epic stuff you probably know it as today, which when I was young was the Anthology of American Folk Music stuff. It’s fitting that Jack White is the Harry Smith of our times. Bravo Big Jack for the vinyl reissues of the old weird America. One of the compelling stories of the Ramblers is the pull in the band between Charlie Poole to be vaudeville, tin pan alley and pop and the fiddler Posey Rorer to be old time string music. I can see them in suits, drinking whiskey in a saloon talking about their band’s direction and it’s not unlike any other pairing in music or business. The Steve Jobs need the Tim Cooks. The Micks need the Keiths. The Johns need the Pauls.
There’s music coming out of every hole in the world, It’s like we are in an elevator all the time. There’s this awkwardness where audiences are so disaffected against the notion that they might like a band that playing something is meaningless. Maybe that’s just Nashville. It’s the reaction. “This bar doesn’t have live music does it?”, is what I say (to myself) when I walk into any place. Please, give me jazz, classical, or ambient.
When I worked for an art supply store I wrote the best songs of my thirties. When I worked at Pier 1 I wrote the best songs of my twenties. I was hungry. I had lower middle class, no college, no money, no nothing heritage on my shoulders. I was hungry then. The crowds were hungry then. At least in Knoxville. I was still hungry in Nashville but the crowds were on a high fat diet. This reminded me of The Rolling Stones documentary, Ole Ole Ole. The people in South America were hungry for the Stones. The crowds were on fire. They were breathless and writhing.
"What can a poor boy do? But to sing for a rock n roll band?"-The Rolling Stones
But now, he can become a Real Estate Agent or a contractor or an insurance sales man. Thankfully for our well being this is true but it's not exactly exciting is it?
It’s the difference in feeding the hungry and the stuffed.
Were we more interesting when we had fewer choices? For Charlie it was mill work or banjo. For his audience it was the mill or more of the mill so they were hungry for the diversion of his banjo.
There is this beautiful elegance to the transaction of the band and the audience in the time before the Music Business. Is that true? Charlie Poole wanted out of the mills to the degree that he wanted to be a pop star. Music is a way out. I can’t think of anything now that is as urgent an agent in our culture other than young men living in public housing and making it to the professional level in a sport or business. Or perhaps an immigrant family owning a small business and working brutal hours.
We don’t live on dirt roads, we don’t live without air conditioning , we don’t return to our community where we work as a farmer or a mill hand or an elevator operator when the music doesn’t work out. We become office workers. Or contractors. There is no more chance of saving country music and going back to that than there is making a time machine.
You can get it all the music, forever and ever on your phone. But, maybe you can’t get all of it? On a recent 18 hour drive from Florida I realized “In a Big Country” isn’t on Apple Music right now. I bought the single years ago, so it’s in my music iCloud. But what if it disappeared? Universal Studio had a fire a few years ago. They lost a list of masters that should bring shame and embarrassment. Part of me wonders does all that loss free up humanities bank of music? Like we are now free to make new stuff after that purge? Unfortunately, we’ve made more than enough to fill that hole but the quality of what we’ve filled it with isn’t the same. It was filled by people who had too many choices for people that are well fed? Once there was rock class that was the end right? It wasn’t do or die anymore.
I read where The Black Kids took 10 years off. Who the hell has cash to sit out for 10 years that’s in a band? How the hell do you pay bills? How do you keep people remembering you? How can you have that little drive? How can you be that freaking lackadaisical about art?
Well, the world is, so why not the artists? Because we don't have to be, I suppose.
Ok. So what am I yammering on for?
Who was Charlie Poole making art for? It was clear. It was easy. It was for the people that worked in the mills in his touring radius and early record buyers who had very few choices.
Who am I making art for? That’s what I need to find out.
Then I need to figure out, is it for the hungry or the stuffed? Maybe I need to try to make myself hungry again.