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Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)

DigiTrad:
A THOUSAND SONGS
CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
GARBAGE
THE WALLS HAVE EARS


Related threads:
Whatever became of Bill Steele (16)
Lyr Req/ADD: Doctor Jekyll's Cola (Bill Steele) (9)
Lyr Req: Bill Steele's telephone booth song (3)


wendyg 19 Dec 18 - 07:23 PM
GUEST,keberoxu 19 Dec 18 - 08:01 PM
clueless don 20 Dec 18 - 08:13 AM
Hollowfox 20 Dec 18 - 03:56 PM
GUEST,Philippa 21 Dec 18 - 06:47 PM
wendyg 21 Dec 18 - 11:08 PM
Susan of DT 23 Dec 18 - 04:16 PM
Waddon Pete 24 Dec 18 - 06:18 AM
wendyg 26 Dec 18 - 05:57 PM
Ross Campbell 26 Dec 18 - 07:09 PM
wendyg 28 Dec 18 - 10:38 AM
clueless don 28 Dec 18 - 02:27 PM
vectis 29 Dec 18 - 07:58 PM
GUEST,Don Meixner 30 Dec 18 - 12:24 PM
wendyg 31 Dec 18 - 08:08 PM
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Subject: Obit: Bill Steele
From: wendyg
Date: 19 Dec 18 - 07:23 PM

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.

wg


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: GUEST,keberoxu
Date: 19 Dec 18 - 08:01 PM

"Garbage!" sung by Michael Cooney was my intro,
although at the time I heard Cooney on a television broadcast,
there was no mention of Bill Steele
and it would be a long time before I did hear of him.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: clueless don
Date: 20 Dec 18 - 08:13 AM

I am so sorry to hear this. Thank you, wendyg, for letting us know - and my condolences to you for this loss!

I was a grad student at Cornell when Mr. Steele returned to Ithaca. I have both of his albums, and I remember a number of songs that he performed locally (which didn't make it onto the albums.) One in particular was a parody of "The Week Before Easter". The opening verse, as I recall, was

'twas the week before Summer.
So green were the trees.
I took all my finals
and passed them with ease.
Then I went to the Registrar
and paid all my fee-ee-ees.
And they kept me in line for an hour.

And there was a song about a woman who left everything behind to run off with the man "in the Winebago-O", and a song called "We are true conservatives" (to the tune of Yankee Doodle), and probably loads that I don't remember or never heard - he was such a prolific, and talented, songwriter. He was also the first person I ever heard sing Percy French's "Abdul a Bulbul Amir".

Go well, sir!


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: Hollowfox
Date: 20 Dec 18 - 03:56 PM

Damn. I met him a few times at festivals and coffeehouses, and he was one of the most generous and kind people I've ever known. I still cry whenever I hear Laugh, Sally, Laugh.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: GUEST,Philippa
Date: 21 Dec 18 - 06:47 PM

I was so sorry to see Bill's name mentioned in this context, and then to learn that his death was not particularly age-related but due to a tragic accident. I don't have any stories to tell about Bill. I remember Bill but didnt know him well. I wonder if I knew Wendy and/or Don at least to see from Johnny's Big Red Bar and Grill and Anabelle Taylor Hall and similar venues. There was a marvellous folk scene in Ithaca in the 1970s.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: wendyg
Date: 21 Dec 18 - 11:08 PM

You probably would have encountered me, yes. We hung out a lot at the Unmuzzled Ox.

As a data point, however: Bill did not write "The Week Before Summer". I did.

wg


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: Susan of DT
Date: 23 Dec 18 - 04:16 PM

I went to the Unmuzzled Ox in the '60s. Folk music was mostly in Japes, the Outing Club building, on Friday nights. I met Bill and the Houghtons later, after I had graduated and left Ithaca. I probably met Bill at Fox Hollow.


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: Waddon Pete
Date: 24 Dec 18 - 06:18 AM

I was sorry to hear this news. Bill was a wonderful folk singer and entertainer in the best sense. I have added his name to the "In Memoriam" thread. My condolences to his friends and family.

RIP

Peter


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: wendyg
Date: 26 Dec 18 - 05:57 PM

In the mid 1960s, Bill played washtub bass in a group called the Berkeley String Quartet, which included Country Joe McDonald. Someone sent Joe some recordings and he put up a page, so here they are in 1965:

https://www.countryjoe.com/bsq.htm

wg


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: Ross Campbell
Date: 26 Dec 18 - 07:09 PM

Sorry to learn this, Wendy. I remember Bill from my fleeting visit to Ithaca in 1979 on the way to Winnipeg Folk Festival. You delegated him to meet me off the Greyhound bus, where he greeted me with "You must be Ross MacDonald!" "Not necesarily" was about the best I could come up with. I know he meant a lot to you. Sorry for your loss.
Ross


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: wendyg
Date: 28 Dec 18 - 10:38 AM

Hi, Ross. That's a pretty funny story. I hope you're well - been a long time since we've been in touch.

wg


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: clueless don
Date: 28 Dec 18 - 02:27 PM

My sincere apologies, wendyg, for my misattribution of "The Week Before Summer". I have a notion that I did hear Bill sing it - possibly in duet with you?

Don


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: vectis
Date: 29 Dec 18 - 07:58 PM

http://www.14850.com/12219226-bill-steele-fire/?fbclid=IwAR0VEybYM4FSEqZDjx58jVW-5cQtnAI9N5bZfHRHFMOcaFwF2gv5Z20ptNY


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: GUEST,Don Meixner
Date: 30 Dec 18 - 12:24 PM

I am very sorry to learn of Bill's passing. I have enjoyed his songs for years and "Charlie Chan" is still in my rep. I met Bill years ago after a concert in Ithaca. Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin I think. There was an after party at a home in Caroline NY. I was taken by Bill's gift for lyrics and his amazing humor.

Don Meixner


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Subject: RE: Obit: Bill Steele (1932-2018)
From: wendyg
Date: 31 Dec 18 - 08:08 PM

Don: I think I sang it once or twice and then Bill picked it up. You probably did hear him sing it.

wg


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