Old-time temptations abound in Eden

by Amy Kingsley

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting for the Charlie Poole Music Festival than Eden, NC, the home of the event for the past decade. And that’s not just because the festival’s namesake hailed from the area (Charlie Poole lived in Spray, one of three Rockingham County towns that merged to form Eden).

The town’s name suggests, nay it almost insists on a place unspoiled. And native son Poole is about as serviceable an Adam figure as any for those searching to anoint a single forefather to modern country music.

So on a warm weekend in early June fans and instrumentalists have convened to celebrate that old-time music that has miraculously avoided the mortality bestowed upon other genres that tasted the apple of mass media hype. The Eden Fairground is not exactly a garden, just a stage shell on acreage cleared of dense forest. But for three days, it’s a perfectly fertile setting for impromptu jam sessions to blossom. The musicians flit from one band to another, partaking in the grassroots musical germination that has allowed old-time music to persist and evolve for hundreds of years.

‘“The competition format is really the heart’s blood of this kind of music,’” says Wayne Seymour, an emcee and festival organizer.

The bluegrass band Starline Drive plays during a break between competitions on Saturday, the second day of the festival. Four bands competed in the last category for best bluegrass band. Three of them assembled hastily out of solo competitors in the half hour before their performance.

‘“You know how this works, don’t you?’” asks Mert McGuire, an Eden native and old-time fan. ‘“They pick out a song like ‘Cripple Creek’ and just say it’s in the key of D.’”

McGuire, a maintenance worker at UNCG, claims no scholarly expertise, but he grew up in Eden accompanying his grandpa to the weekly jam sessions that attract as many as 40 neighbors. The parking lot is ground zero for such jam sessions this weekend. Out in that dusty gravel, an antic hoe down originating from a band tucked behind a VW van drowns out the mournful sawing of a ballading fiddler settled between parked sedans.

‘“There’s a lot of camaraderie here,’” Seymour says. ‘“A lot of the audience members will never even go up to the stage. They’ll just watch the people jamming all weekend. You end up getting to know people from all over the country.’”

Old-time music originated sometime after European settlers washed up on the shores of the New World. They brought German, Scandinavian, Irish and Scotch-Irish traditions with them into the Appalachian Mountains, where life proved hard and music essential.

‘“All the old-time bands were more communal,’” Seymour says. ‘“Everyone just sits down and plays together. It was music to dance to; usually the speed wasn’t too fast and the song’s weren’t too complicated.’”

Bluegrass emerged from old-time music, but the music was always flashier and more presentational, Seymour said. Bill Monroe pioneered bluegrass music in the 1940s by creating spaces for solos, accelerating the tunes and embracing instrumental virtuosity. Poole, a seminal figure from the 1920s, contributed the innovation of three-finger style banjo picking. Before Poole, banjo players hit the strings in a percussive style known as clawhammer.

‘“Poole was really a transitional figure,’” Seymour says. ‘“He brought this music out of the living room. Poole sold 100,000 records at a time when an album cost a week’s salary.’”

His success stemmed from the banjo player’s willingness to experiment not only with technique, but also with repertoire. Poole synthesized mountain music, Broadway tunes and the songs published as popular sheet music. In the most widespread image of Poole, the entertainer is dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit, his hair pomade-slick and neatly parted. Poole and his band distanced themselves from their country roots.

The three-day festival commences Friday with a concert featuring banjo player and Appalachian native Debby McClatchy, the Hungry Hash House Ramblers (descendants of Poole and fiddler Posey Rorer) and Phil and Ann Case among others. The competition starts Saturday morning and culminates with a concert by the New North Carolina Ramblers, who recreate the music Poole created.

The turnout in Eden proves that Poole achieved the objective of expanding folk music beyond its country roots.. One old-time band competing Saturday flew to the Charlie Poole festival from Gainsborough, England. A fiddle competitor, 25-year-old Leif Saya, traveled from Juneau, Alaska and hit the competition as part of a swing through the Southeast.

‘“Like most people here I was surrounded by [folk music] as a child,’” Saya says. ‘“I never had to go out and discover it. Most of the people in Alaska learned about folk music through the revival in the 1960s.’”

Saya picked up the fiddle when he was 7 years old, but the Eden competition is only his second.

‘“Most people at this festival don’t really care that much about the competition,’” Saya says. ‘“There’s a whole genre of contest tunes that are real showy, and some of the big competitions are really serious. The judges wear blindfolds and thousands of people come.’”

Saya competed in three categories: bluegrass fiddle, old-time fiddle and bluegrass band. For the latter he joined a sextet of random musicians, including another fiddler old enough to be his grandfather.

Seymour says the banjo long existed as the sole purview of African Americans. That had changed by Charlie Poole’s day. Judging by the makeup of the crowd, bluegrass and old-time music in Eden appeals solely to a lily-white crowd.

But that is where the similarity ends. The crowd features old-timers who’ve grown up in Eden, once a recording center for old-time and bluegrass, and the graduate students and hipsters turned on to folk music through the likes of early ethnomusicologists Harry Smith and Alan Lomax. As they sit in their lawn chairs and chat, a familiar refrain emerges.

‘“It’s sure been a long time since I heard that old Charlie Poole music.’”

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