Posts Tagged ‘Pete Steele’

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

January 30, 2012

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…. (more…)

Coal Creek March: Southern Marvel #5

January 28, 2012


Of all the early banjo players recorded for the Library of Congress’s folk music archive, none commanded as many techniques or employed as many tunings as Simon “Pete” Steele.  A dazzling array of frailing, two-finger, and up-picking styles defines his extensive repertoire of instrumentals, folk songs, and ballads. Born in Woodbine, Kentucky, on March 5, 1891, Steele gave few public performances outside his home community in Hamilton, Ohio, yet he had considerable influence on musicians of the urban folk revival during the 1950s and 1960s.

Steele began playing the banjo when he was six or seven on a fretless instrument made for him by his fiddle-playing father. While much of Steele’s instruction came from his father, other local musicians also passed along tunes. One of these, “Coal Creek March,” a parlor-based banjo instrumental with a series of ascending and descending arpeggios, commemorated mining troubles that occurred in the early 1890s in Coal Creek, Tennessee.

In 1938 Steele recorded “Coal Creek March” for the Library of Congress. With the tune’s publication in 1942, Steele’s playing came to be known to a wider audience, and by the mid-1950s, Pete Seeger had made the “March” an integral part of his concerts, urging his listeners to learn directly from the music’s authentic sources. This led to Steele’s 1958 solo album on the Folkways label, Banjo Tunes and Songs. In later years, those who traveled to his home were rewarded with his performance of “Coal Creek March,” which had become a sig- nature piece among the many he had mastered. Steele died November 21, 1985.

From notes to Folkways LP 3828:

Pete Steele plays “Coal Creek March”: