Pete Steele, Reed Martin, Mike Seeger, and Ralph Rinzler

by

Pete and Lillian Steele

by Reed Martin

Paul Pell came from Hamilton, Ohio. He loved the banjo and made them in his spare time.  It seems that back in Hamilton, there was an older man (Pete Steele) who PLAYED the banjo, and also liked to drink a bit. When the money ran low at a bar, Pete Steele would offer his banjo as collateral and keep drinking. He would leave that bar and never go back, but he would let Paul know eventually that “something had happened, and he could no longer find his banjo.” So Paul would smile, make Mr. Steele another banjo and the cycle would start once again.

 

 

 
Indiana University had a college “Folksong Club” which sponsored monthly folk music concerts on campus. Paul suggested that they invite Pete &  Lillian Steele for a concert, and the Steeles could stay at the Pell household for the weekend – thereby making it less expensive on everybody – and besides, Pete was once again between banjos, and Paul needed to connect with him and hand him another banjo to play.

 

 

 
The evening concert was breathtaking. No set list as I recall – just Pete & Lillian singing whatever came to mind. When there was a need to take a vocal rest, Pete would unload another blockbuster on the banjo.  Later – some voice expert said to me, “did you notice that they don’t sing in harmony – Mrs. Steele sings an octave higher than her husband.”  What do I know about singing – it all sounded great to everyone in the audience !!!

 

 

 
They had given me their home address in Hamilton, Ohio, so six months after their concert I drove over for a visit. I arrived about noon and left before suppertime. We played, talked, and played.  I asked Pete if I could take a photograph of him holding his banjo. He thought that would be fine. I asked if I could take a picture of both he and Lillian together. He thought that would be fine, too.

I asked if I could take a photograph of just his two hands – stretched out showing his fingers – and he questioned me on that one….. Why would you want to do that? – he asked…. So I told him exactly why…..”in the years to come, when you are not playing banjo on stage anymore, young banjo players will absolutely not believe that you do not have extra fingers.  I will have photographic PROOF that you do indeed have hands mostly like everyone else’ hands..”  So he laughed, I got my photo, and it is always in my banjo case if I need it for proof that he did indeed have just regular hands….just four fingers and a thumb on each hand….
I visited them maybe three times – catching them at home.  I drove over probably another three times to find nobody at home. Hey – I’m a hillbilly – not much on using the telephone.  Pete told me all the information he had about the man whom he had learned the Coal Creek banjo tunes from, who “lived somewhere east of Indianapolis……”  I drove up and asked lots of places if anyone fitting Pete’s description was still around playing banjo tunes and entertaining folks, but nary a lead ever turned up.

 

 
After I had moved to the Washington, D.C. area, I mentioned to Ralph Rinzler that the Steeles might be a possibility for the Folklife Festival. He thought that seemed like a great idea.  The next trip passing their neighborhood, I stopped and asked if they would feel up to a trip to Washington, D.C. to play music at the Festival. They thought it sounded great, but Pete said emphatically, “I don’t want to get around any of them hippie-type folks. I ain’t-a interested in mixing with any of them.”  So I promised the Steeles that I would come pick them up, and I would be their driver for the round trip.

That seemed fine, so we agreed and I later called Mr. Rinzler and told him it was a done deal as long as I was their contact person, and driver. I CAREFULLY explained that Pete Steele was not at all interested in mixing with folks with long hair and appearing “hippie”.

So a month passed…..I drove past Hamilton and stopped at the Steele residence.  Pete greeted me with a handshake…..and the tip of one index finger was missing.  I was incredulous.  “What on earth happened?”

He said, “Oh –  it ain’t much – I cut it off while a-runnin’ my table saw, buildin’ a birdhouse.”  I asked him if it bothered his playing……and (of course I should have known his answer ) – Pete said, “Well – I don’t know……I can’t seem to find my banjo ’round here anywhere.”

So I got my old banjo out of the car and the first tune he played was the Coal Creek March – only using whatever finger seemed most comfortable ……same notes, just maybe not the same finger playing them as when he recorded that tune for the Library of Congress.      So I learned, at that moment, that some great old banjo players play from the brain and not from the index finger.  At least that was the case with Pete Steele.

 

 
And then he dropped the big surprise….”And we ain’t a-goin’ to that Smithsonian thing with you after all……..after you was here before, about a couple of weeks later some hippie-guy with long hair came a-knockin’ at our door and said HE was going to be takin’ us to that festival instead of you, and Lillian and I  said to each other that we wasn’t goin’ to ride with no hippie, so I told him we had changed our minds and wasn’t a-goin’ at all.”

You can imagine how I felt.  So I excused myself and went to the nearest pay phone and called Ralph Rinzler.  “What did you do that destroyed the plan of my bringing Pete and Lillian Steele to Washington, D.C. ?

And he said, “Oh – I mentioned it to Mike Seeger, and he said that he would come talk to them and HE was going to bring them to the Festival.”   “IS THERE A PROBLEM?”

And I said to him, “Yes – there most definitely is a problem…..Mike Seeger has long hair and is seen as a hippie by the Steeles, and I already had explained to you their feelings about mixing with long-haired-hippies……..”

Ralph said, “Oh – I’m sorry.”   But it was too late.  Mike had no idea that he was put in the Hippie category, but the Steeles would not change their minds, so we all missed the opportunity of seeing them at the Folklife Festival.

The folk music world owes Paul Pell a large amount of gratitude for all the banjos he built and gave to Pete Steele.  It was Paul who quietly kept Pete in such good musical shape.  I know he never kept track of how many he made, but I am sure that there are still bars in Hamilton which have old musty banjos sitting somewhere – waiting for the owner to someday return.

And I still carry the photos in my banjo case……….and I still get haircuts – just in case another Pete Steele is out there – – –  should we be so lucky.

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10 Responses to “Pete Steele, Reed Martin, Mike Seeger, and Ralph Rinzler”

  1. MITCHELL HARRIS Says:

    I LIVED CLOSE TO PETE & MRS STEEL FOR 14 YEARS, MANY A DAY WE WOULD PIC A LITTLE ON HIS PORCH. MY WIFE GAVE PETE HER BANJO. HE IN RETURN GAVE HER A BANJOLYN WHICH WE HAVE TO THIS DAY. KNOWING PETE AND LILL WAS ONE OF MY MILESTONES IN LIFE.

  2. Mitchell Harris Says:

    THEIR SON ED AND GRANDSON DONNIE WERE CLOSE FRIENDS OF OUR FAMILY. MITCH AND JANET LEE (McNALLY) HARRIS.

  3. JF Stover Says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’m reading up on Mr Steele because someone mentioned that he did ‘up-picking’ style.

    • REED MARTIN Says:

      Dear JF Stover – Pete Steele’s right hand was so smooth that when he went from up-picking with thumb & index to “rap” style (using the back of his index finger) – …..if you weren’t watching his right hand – you could not tell which direction his index finger was striking the melody notes.

  4. Tammy Lee Mistyurik Says:

    I am one of Pete and Lillie Steele’s granddaughter, my mother is Sue Steele-Mistyurik. I can nearly guarantee that there will never be anyone like my Papaw. He has influenced so many musicians in every style of music. I love and miss them both each day of my life and am so proud he’s finally getting the recognition he and Mamaw have always deserved. All these new progressive rock bands need to know that without MY Papaw Pete Steele, drop D tuning would have never been discovered.
    My sincere thanks to everyone who continue to be influenced by his music style and continues to purchase his album. He would be very
    happy knowing that he had the power to influence so many of you!
    Love and Peace to all.
    Sincerely,
    Tammy Lee Mistyurik

  5. REED MARTIN Says:

    Tammy –
    My email address is reedbanjo@verizon.net
    Reed

  6. Daniel French Says:

    Could anyone tell me whereabouts these folks lived in hamilton? I grew up there and still have most of my family and friends there and I’m just curious what part of town they lived in.

    • REED MARTIN Says:

      Daniel –
      It has been many years. My old address book is gone now. I wish I could give you the home address for the Steeles, but it has slipped out of my mind and my new address book. I will always have my photo of Pete’s two hands – showing that he has the same number of fingers and thumbs as the rest of us. And I have a couple of photos showing his smile……one of the great smiles. If he smiled, YOU smiled…..no choice about it !

  7. Tim Says:

    I am a great grandson .Nice to see those pics .

  8. Tyler G Says:

    I’m very good friends with Pete’s grandson Jeff Steele. He is an incredible guitarist and would love to meet you and hear these stories in person. Please email me and I’ll put you in contact with him. Thanks for sharing this!

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