Recently I saw Loudon Wainwright sing a tribute to Charlie Poole in the Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke. For every folk music enthusiast who picked or plucked a string in the ’60s or ’70s, Charlie Poole, who lived in the 1920s north of Greensboro, North Carolina, was known as the first commercially successful string band musician.

The simplicity, the fun, the authenticity, and the down home charm of Charlie Poole were all conveyed by Wainwright‘s performance. In fact, Wainwright himself, not surprisingly, has loads of that good time humor and front porch appeal. His fans have known this for the last 40 years.

The concert is the outgrowth of the CD set High, Wide, and Handsome, the Charlie Poole Project, which won the 2009 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Wainwright’s friend and record producer, Dick Connette, conceived the idea of this Charlie Poole tribute and brought it together with both original Charlie Poole songs and new compositions inspired by the old North Carolina troubadour. Many musicians and singers contributed to the project, and the CD set is well worth buying and hearing.

The Reynolds Theater in the Duke Bryan Center can’t be beat for an intimate concert experience. The graceful amphitheater curve and slope make every seat a good one, and the patina of the stained wood walls gives it a living room feel. As Wainwright came into the lobby following the concert to sign CDs for fans, he kept that Will Rogers, never met a man he didn’t like, grin. I was reminded of the several movies I had seen him in as a character actor.

The conclusion of a fine evening could end here, except that, as stories do, one leads to another. Charlie Poole who drank himself to death at the age of 39 in 1931 did live long enough to produce a Charlie Poole Jr. My encounter with this second generation began in the early ’70s when my friend, George Holt, now director of the NC Art Museum concerts, was walking the halls of the Umstead State Mental Hospital looking for Hash House Harvey.

Someone questioned George’s search, but fortunately George found Harvey in time to validate his story. Harvey Ellington, a baker at the mental hospital, had been a fiddler with the Swingbillies and the Tobacco Tags during the late 30’s and into the early ’50s, but had laid down his fiddle years ago to be a family man and get a steady job as a baker.

The Swingbillies who had recorded 10 sides for the RCA Bluebird label in 1937 had as their lead singer, one Charlie Poole Jr. During their brief existence, the Swingbillies, a few measures and a syncopation or two beyond the original Charlie Poole group, played on the radio at WPTF in Raleigh. George told me about his re-discovery of Harvey Ellington, who was about to retire from baking. Being an erstwhile dilettante mediocre banjo and guitar picker myself, I went to visit Harvey and began learning his old songs. Harvey was picking up his fiddle again as many musicians did after retiring from their day job. Harvey’s musical enthusiasm was delightful, and his stories were superb. He told of Charlie Poole Jr., Dunk Poole, they called him, being a bit of a boozer like his father. Much of the time, Dunk lived out of his car. The 10 songs he recorded with the Swingbillies were all that he ever did. I heard a tape of them in the ’70s, but they were very hard to find. Now, all ten songs can be downloaded at the Western Swing on 78 blog.

From this photo which Harvey eventually gave me, there’s a couple of other musicians I wanted to meet. Sam, second from left, Harvey told me, was Starvin’ Sam, or Sam Pridgen. So one afternoon (circa 1973), Barry Poss and I followed Harvey’s directions to a west Durham neighborhood and found Sam Pridgen waiting at the bus stop. We talked a long time. Sam never caught the bus. Barry, a banjo player himself, and later the founder of Sugar Hill Records, greeted me at the Loudon Wainwright concert. Lots of history there.

We got Harvey and Sam together and they started playing. More Charlie Poole Jr. stories emerged, then even better stories of medicine show days and vaudeville acts. George Holt eventually arranged for Harvey and Sam to re-enact their medicine show. At the time I was presenting traditional musicians to public school students through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. At one school, Harvey, Barry and I and another friend, Jennie,  had a fine time playing for the kids.

One more character in the Swingbillies photo bears mention. The young kid, Ray, on the right was Ray Williams from Durham, still a teenager at the time but possibly influenced by the 1933 recordings of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. Ray was one of the hottest young guitarists around… in 1937. “What happened to him?” I asked Harvey. Oh, he got into nuclear physics or something like that and ended up in Los Alamos. “Huh?” I answered. “Where is he now?” I think he lives in Richmond, Harvey responded.

Pretty quickly I was off to Richmond to find Ray. It wasn’t hard. Ray truly had been a career scientist and was living comfortably in Richmond. He never left music, but had wandered the genres and was now (1974 or so) playing tenor banjo with a Dixieland group in a Richmond night club. Within weeks, Ray was back visiting Harvey and Sam.

By 1979, I had wandered away from music, though George and Barry became career entrepreneurs in continuing the performance and recording of roots based southern music. So, Friday night with Loudon Wainwright brought back great memories.

Bill Phillips

Bill Phillips

A lifelong North Carolina resident with an interest in local history, outdoor adventures, politics, and culture.  

Started out as a high school history teacher, then worked in public schools under grants from the 1964 Civil Rights Act (teacher education programs.) Then a three year stint as a social worker was followed by several years as a “folkie,” playing string band music, making musical instruments, and presenting indigenous folk performers in public school concerts under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Change of course: became a carpenter, then a home remodeler, then a home builder, then a remodeling designer. Now, am merging that with free lance photography and writing.

A hopelessly compulsive writer, with more unpublished stuff in the closet than you want to know about. Have recently seen the light of day with a blog on Google Blogger. If an article of mine on Like the Dew interests you, you will find it on the following blog with many more high resolution photos relating to the post.

North Carolina, People and Places

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