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. , 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.
Born in Woodbine, Kentucky, 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 signature piece among the many he had mastered.