New laureate Bob Dylan, in his Nobel Lecture this week on his artistic influences, gave a nod to a revered North Carolina musician and one of his best-known tunes.
Only it turns out that Dylan misquoted Charlie Poole.
Poole was a Randolph County native who led one of the nation’s most popular string bands of the 1920s, the North Carolina Ramblers.
The Ramblers’ music deeply influenced bluegrass and modern country music, and Poole himself was known for a unique three-finger banjo picking style. His career slumped when the Great Depression hit, and Poole, an alcoholic, died young in 1931.
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In his lecture, Dylan cited performers and works that shaped his music over the years, from Buddy Holly to “Moby Dick.” Among them was the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” about the horrors of World War I.
“Charlie Poole from North Carolina had a song that connected to all this,” Dylan says, quoting lyrics from a song Poole had recorded, “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me”:
I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
But that’s not how Poole sang it in 1927.
His version of the song was about a man who bums food from a lady, who then asks him to chop firewood in return. The singer’s response goes:
You ain’t talkin’ to me
No you ain’t a-talkin’ to me
You fed me good but I can’t cut wood
And you ain’t a-talkin’ to me
Louise Price, director of the annual (except this year) Charlie Poole Music Festival in Eden, is proud that Dylan would honor a North Carolina hero.
But Price isn’t surprised that antiwar lyrics would slip into the song over the years. Poole didn’t write his own material, she said, and had himself replaced wording in the tune that would now be regarded as racist.
Poole’s genius, Price said, was to remake pieces in his own style.
“ ‘You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me’ was like a vaudeville piece. He just transformed it,” Price said. “To me, Charlie is the creator of modern American music because when you hear something through his sieve, if you will, he makes them something totally new.”
Dylan himself might agree.
“If a song moves you,” he says in his Nobel lecture, “that’s all that’s important.”