Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"White House Blues" - Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers


Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Six: "White House Blues" performed by Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers. "Vocal solo with violin, banjo, guitar." Recorded in New York on September 20, 1926. Original issue Columbia 15099D (W142658).

Born in Spray, North Carolina on March 22, 1892, Charlie Poole is one of most influential early country musicians. He spent most of his 39 years playing baseball, working in textile mills, performing music, and drinking heavily. By May of 1931 Charlie Poole was dead, yet the amount of work produced in those 39 short years puts him in the same category as other great American musicians who lived fast and died young, including Bix Beiderbecke, Hank Williams, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, among others. Poole is reknowned for his unique banjo-picking style, which evolved as a result of a baseball-related hand injury. Poole has made a lasting contribution to the development of country music thanks to the influence he had on such artists as Bill Monroe (who turned "White House Blues" into a Bluegrass standard) and Hank Williams.

In 1925, Poole and his brother-in-law Posey Rorer (who has already appeared on the Anthology on "A Lazy Farmer Boy" and "My Name Is John Johanna") formed the North Carolina Ramblers with guitarist Roy Harvey. Their first recordings produced a hit with "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," which has since been covered by the Grateful Dead, among others. The song is generally considered to be the first genuine country hit. "White House Blues" was recorded a year later. Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers had several successful recordings before the Depression took its toll on the music industry. Poole reportedly became depressed as a result of his change in fortunes and increased his drinking. In 1931, he was invited to Hollywood to provide background music for a film. Poole never made it to Hollywood. Instead, he died of heart failure following a thirteen week bender.

"White House Blues" provides a model for the way in which a topical song is often made up of the elements of other songs. The folk songs "Delia," "That Crazy War," "The Cannonball (Solid Gone)," "Cannonball Blues," "Battleship of Maine," and "Pig in a Pen" have all been cited as sources for or near relatives of "White House Blues." Following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, some enterprising songster borrowed elements from one or more songs to compose a topical song that captured the spirit of the moment. The song itself is quite irreverent. Most farmers and other country folk had supported McKinley's opponent William Jennings Bryan in 1896 (and again in 1900) and were not terribly saddened by McKinley's passing.

William McKinley was the 25th President of the United States and has the distinction of being the last Civil War veteran to hold the office. He was assassinated at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the abdomen, severely wounding him. McKinley was treated at the exhibition's emergency hospital, a facility so lacking that it didn't even have electric light. The doctors were able to easily locate and remove one of the bullets, but they were unable to find the other (the exhibition featured the first x-ray machine in one of its exhibits, but the doctors elected not to use it, not knowing what side-effects it might have). As with Garfield twenty years earlier, McKinley was killed by substandard medical care rather than by his assassin's bullet. Eight days after the shooting, McKinley died, making Theodore Roosevelt the youngest man ever to hold the office of President.

McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled.
Doc said "McKinley I can't find that ball."
From Buffalo to Washington.

Roosevelt in the White House, he's doing his best.
McKinley's in the graveyard, he's taking his rest.
He is gone. A long, long time.

Hush up, little children. Now, don't you fret.
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death.
From Buffalo to Washington.

Roosevelt in the White House drinking out of the silver cup.
McKinley in the graveyard, he'll never wake up.
He is gone. A long old time.

Ain't but one thing that grieves my mind.
That is to die and leave my poor wife behind.
I am gone. Long, long time.

Lookee here little children [unintelligible].
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death.
From Buffalo to Washington.

Standing at the station, just lookin' at the time.
See if I could run it by half past nine.
From Buffalo to Washington.

[Unintelligible] the train, she's just on time.
She's running about a mile from eight o' clock til nine.
From Buffalo to Washington.

Yonder come the train, she's coming down the line.
Slow into the station, Mr. McKinley's a-dying.
It's hard times. Hard times.

Lookee here, you rascal, you see what you've done.
You shot my husband and I've got your gun.
Gave his badge to Washington.

Doc told the horse, he'd throw down his rein.
He said to the horse "You gotta outrun this train."
From Buffalo to Washington

The doc came a-running, he taked off his specs.
Said "Mr. McKinley, better cash in your checks
You're bound to die, you're bound to die."


Unlike "Charles Giteau," "White House Blues" is not about the Presidential Assassin, but about the assassinated President himself. While Kelly Harrell sings, "My name is Charles Guiteau, my name I'll never deny," Poole never even mentions the name of Leon Czolgosz. Instead, Poole sends up the poor medical treatment McKinley received and cracks some very grim jokes about McKinley "taking his rest." The instrumental performance perfectly mirrors the previous selection, "Stackalee," which also turns a real life tragedy into rousing free-for-all. This is something often seen on the Anthology; death, murder, suicide, and mayhem are - if not always a source of humor - at the very least treated as a simple fact of life. One wonders if this was because the artists didn't take the subject matter of the songs very seriously (and why should they?) or because of the commonplace reality of death that still held sway into the early part of the 20th century. Unlike today, where death is largely the abstract subject of newspaper headlines and government statistics, more often than not taking place behind hospital doors, most ordinary people in the 1920s had lost at least one close family member before reaching their teens and twenties. The undertaker was a familiar face in any community and cemeteries were often located in the center of town or next to the local church. Today we make sure that the cemetery is someplace far away, where most of us won't see it unless we have to go there for some specific purpose. We keep death at arms length and avoid thinking of it unless compelled by personal tragedy. Cataclysmic events and celebrity deaths serve as our memento mori, while our ancestors were reminded of their impending deaths several times a year thanks to relatively high infant mortality, workplace accidents, and other relatively commonplace demises.

Charlie Poole is another vocalist who sounds considerably older than his thirty-four years. For whatever reason, the lyrics on this recording are difficult to make out at times. In those places where I honestly couldn't make out a word he was saying, I have simply written the world "unintelligible." If any of you have better luck, you can e-mail me at wheredeadvoicesgather1@gmail.com.

"White House Blues" marks the first ballad on the Anthology whose subject was an event that took place during the life-time of most of the artists. We've reached the 20th century and we've reached events that many of these artists might have remembered happening. Charlie Poole was nine years old when McKinley was assassinated, certainly old enough to be aware that the President of the United States had been shot and killed. We've left history and myth behind and move a step closer to current events.

The Shameless Plug Department II: The Next Day: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

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Here's Lew Dite again performing a version of "White House Blues."



Download and listen to Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers - "White House Blues"

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