Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May 2007)

Let's take a moment to honor Pete Steele (1891 - 1976). He was born in Woodbine, Kentucky, and his first banjo was made from a kitchen sifter ring and a squirrel hide. He and his wife, Lillie, raised 9 children. He worked as a carpenter all his life, including 18 years in the Harlan, Kentucky, coal mines. He never appeared at a folk festival or wrote a song, did not join a band, had no city-bred acolytes at his feet, and made no money from his music. He played banjo mainly around the house and at church, where he and Lillie sang gospel songs.

We wouldn't know he existed, except for Alan Lomax. In 1938, he found Steele in Hamilton, Ohio (near Cincinnati), and was impressed by his repertoire and banjo skills. Lomax recorded him for the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song. Six of these masterpieces, including this month's song, are reissued on the 7-CD Kentucky Mountain Music album (Yazoo 2200). In 1958, Ed Kahn went to Hamilton to find Steele, but Pete had stopped playing music after trading his banjo for a pistol. Kahn had a banjo, and Pete could play it as well as ever. The resulting album, Banjo Tunes and Songs of Pete Steele, (Folkways FS 3828, available as a CD directly from Smithsonian-Folkways) includes tunes Lomax missed, as well as Lillie singing and Pete talking about his musical life. He said the banjo couldn't be the devil's instrument, because he'd converted lots of people with his banjo, and, further, will run the devil off. If you go in where there's music and you're mad, you can't stay. If you don't get in a good humor, you'll just have to leave.


Steele had never been to Coal Creek, Tennessee*, but learned two Coal Creek pieces from another miner. One of them, Coal Creek March, is a banjo instrumental that a lot of us have tried to learn, with varying success. The other one, Last Payday at Coal Creek, is a reverse blues, in the sense that the second line, rather than the first, is repeated. He said this song came from the second (1911; the first one was in 1902) mine explosion that, he said, "busted the company." More than one company went broke at Coal Creek, so we don't know the song's exact origin. I detect African-American influences, and it might have been a pre-existing song modified to fit a local situation.

Easy rider was a hobo term for a freight car with good wheels running on smooth track, and entered general usage during the depression, when lots of people had to ride the freights. Some blues songs extended the term to other comfortable experiences, but this song takes the original meaning to a different metaphorical level: in a cash economy, your comfort level can quickly deteriorate.

Steele was adept at several two-fingered banjo picking styles as well as clawhammer. On this song, he used a tradition I associate with Kentucky: he played fast but sang the words slowly. This allows the timing to vary almost as much as if the song were unaccompanied. Phrasing of the second verse is more complicated than that of the first, so I transcribed the music for that one. If you try it with banjo in open-G tuning (gDGBD), it's fairly easy to play the tune using forefinger barre on the 12th, 5th and 7th frets. As always, it's best to learn the song by ear. I also show the music without rests inside the verse, since that's how Pete sang it in 1938. I don't hear any part of the verse where he takes a breath. Twenty years later, in 1958, he took breaths after every line, just like the rest of us have to.


Complete Lyrics:
1. Payday, it's payday, oh, payday,
Payday at Coal Creek tomorrow,
Payday at Coal Creek tomorrow.

2. Payday, it's payday, oh, payday,
Payday don't come at Coal Creek no more,
Payday don't come no more.

3. Bye bye, bye bye, oh, bye bye,
Bye bye, my woman, I'm gone,
Bye bye, my woman, I'm gone.

4. You'll miss me, you'll miss me, you'll miss me,
You'll miss me when I'm gone,
You'll miss me when I'm gone.

5. I'm a poor boy, I'm a poor boy, I'm a poor boy,
I'm a poor boy and a long way from home,
I'm a poor boy and a long way from home.

6. Easy rider, oh easy rider, oh easy rider,
Oh, easy rider, but she'll leave that rail sometime,
Easy rider, but she'll leave that rail sometime.

* For the Coal Creek story, see Shut Up In Coal Creek Mine (Inside Bluegrass, March 2006) and
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