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wendyg Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018) (22) Obit: Bill Steele 19 Dec 18

I'm sorry to tell everyone here that Bill Steele, writer of many great songs including "Chocolate Chip Cookies", "Griselda's Waltz", and, most famously, "Garbage!", died on Monday of smoke inhalation when a fire at his house in Ithaca, NY, started in his kitchen. He was 86, and until April 1 was still working full-time at the Cornell University News Service. The fire was contained quickly, and no one else was hurt.

Bill was descended from people who came over on the Mayflower, and Mitchell Street in Ithaca was named after his mother's family. He grew up in Williamsville, NY, just outside of Buffalo, and talked often about his Saturday afternoons going to movies. He loved the old science fiction serials, and when I last spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, he told me he was enjoying watching some of the sillier sf movies on TV. He was always interested in science, and began his degree at Cornell as a physics major, shifting to psychology halfway through.

What he liked best, though, was making people laugh. As a Cornell student, he worked on the now-defunct college humor magazine, The Cornell Widow.

I didn't meet Bill until he was 40, in 1972, when he came back to live in Ithaca after a stint in San Francisco, where he worked for a local newspaper and then in a guitar store, taught guitar lessons, and wrote his first songs. His mother had died, and he'd come back to Ithaca for what was meant to be a short time to fix up her house. Instead, he wound up staying in Ithaca, active on the folk scene, for the rest of his life. We met at a Cornell Folk Song Club party at the home of George and Jo Houghton. He drove me back to the student apartment I shared, and we sat in his car and talked until dawn. He was funny, smart, and knowledgeable. Later, he generously helped me get my start playing professionally on the folk scene.

Throughout the time I knew him, Bill pursued both those interests: science writing and folk music. He particularly liked explaining complex science to the general public and, especially, kids. He wrote for numerous publications including Scholastic magazines, the Cornell Chronicle, Working Mother, and Family Circle before he went to work full-time for the Cornell News Service at an age when most people are starting to retire. He was an early adopter of computers in general (he had an early Osborne word processor, if I remember correctly, and I think wrote some manuals for it) and the web in particular. At a time when few knew anything about the web, he designed and wrote the Cornell News website, which ran on his software until a just a few years ago when they migrated it to Drupal.

As a folksinger, he toured all over the country in the 1970s and 1980s, combining topical humor with thoughtful observations of the world around him. A longtime admirer of Pete Seeger, he particularly liked getting everyone to sing, and also to write songs: "If you can sing, then you can write a song," he says in "A Thousand Songs", an anthem to folk festivals and their all-night singing parties.

He recorded two albums, "Garbage! and other Garbage" and "Chocolate Chip Cookies". His 1970 song "The Walls Have Ears", inspired by Watergate, was remarkably prescient about today's loss of privacy; "Garbage!", which was recorded several times by Pete Seeger, was an early (1969) contribution to the environmental movement; "Laughing Sally" mourned the loss of a well-loved San Francisco amusement park to an apartment complex; and "Charlie Chan" was ahead of its time in critiquing the racism of casting white people to play a stereotyped Asian character. "A Thousand Songs" is an anthem to folk festivals and their all-night singing parties, while "Gasoline Gypsies" celebrated the nomadic lifestyle of folksingers and others. A personal favorite is "A Song for Just After Christmas", which retells the Christmas story in a modern setting. Of his more recent songs, perhaps the best known is "Griselda's Waltz", which I was captured playing on autoharp by someone who uploaded it to YouTube, and has been recorded by Dana and Susan Robinson on their album "Big Mystery". In 2009, the Cornell News Service wrote a profile.

Most of the songs mentioned here are available for free download from Bill's website.

I'm sure many people here have their own memories of Bill, and I look forward to reading them.

R.I.P. William Varian Mitchell Steele, February 20, 1932 - December 17, 2018.


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