Pete Steele (1891–1985)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Traditional banjo player.

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.

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MLA Style

"Pete Steele," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 21 Jul 2018 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=197>

APA Style

"Pete Steele." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved July 21, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=197

Pete Steele