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Oct 7, 2021 - 11:22:27 PM
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RG

USA

3118 posts since 8/7/2008

This tune has been one of my favorites ever since learning it way back around 1976.  I first heard it on Art Rosenbaum's great Kicking Mule instructional LP, where he played it as part of a medley including "Stony Point" & "Buck Creek Girls."  Art's playing had a big influence in moving me away from Scruggs style 3 finger bluegrass and really embracing and discovering old-time banjo.   Art played these tunes in gEADE and they are really a great medley.  I have the original LP still, will have to digitize it one of these days.

"Harlan County Farewell Tune/Rambling Hobo" comes from the repertoire of the amazing Pete Steele.  Pete was born in 1891 in Woodbine Kentucky.  Pete started  playing the banjo when he was six on a fretless banjo that his fiddle playing dad made for him.  Pete played in a dazzling array fo styles, knockdown, three finger, thumb and index lead, up-picking, most of them passed down to him by his dad, but he also had a plethora of influences where he grew up.  Pete is perhaps best know for his tour de force  “Coal Creek March,” which commemorated labor troubles and a horrific mine disaster that occurred in the early 1890s in the Fraterville Coal Mines in Tennessee. 

Pete grew up in the Corbin-London area of Kentucky and married Lillian Swanner when he was 19.  Like many itinerent workers of his era, Pete and Lillie moved around Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky before finally settling in Hamilton Ohio, in the southwest part of the state just above Kentucky, where Pete got a steady job working for the Champion Paper Company.  Pete died in 1985 at the age of 94.  Although he really played in public, and then only in the immediate area of Hamilton,  he had a huge influence among folk revivalists in the 1950's and 60's.

Recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax in 1938, Pete's LOC recordings displayed a banjo virtuoso in his prime.  Fast forward 19 years later when archivists Art Rosenbaum and Ed Kahn traveled to Hamilton after hearing the Lomax recordings, and subsequently recorded Steele for the classic Folkways album "Banjo Tunes and Songs".  Pete and Lillie frequently sang together, and they are featured on two of the tracks.  The rest of the album is Pete's fantastic playing.

I'm assuming that Art recorded Pete playing "Harlan County Farewell Tune/Rambling Hobo" at that time, but didn't include the track on the album, or maybe he recorded it at a later date as he was one of the most prolific field recorders.  Art himself is a national treasure.  The album soon catapulted Steele into the vibrant folk revival, and his "Coal Creek March" became a staple of many younger players, Mike Seeger included among them.  Reed Martin wrote a fantastic short article about Pete Steele years ago, and it is well worth the read just for the Mike Seeger "hippie" story.

About the tune, it's a rowdy, raucous breakdown.  I used to play it a lot cleaner and faster, but my fingers have slowed down with age.  Both Pete and Art played it at breakneck speed, and for a reason.  As Pete explains before playing the tune, a soldier drafted into service during WWI played it for his friends as his train was leaving the depot.  Art relates that Pete told him the soldier prefaced the performance by saying "I'm leaving boys and don't think I'ma coming back"; he didn't.  But before he left, he played his friends a fast Kentucky breakdown, not a dirge, that to my ears celebrates exuberance and youth of hard living country boys... you can't get that in a slow tune, and mirrors the great Charlie Lowe's quote about why he always played so fast... "If you want to go to sleep go to bed"  The story of the soldier may well be apocryphal, but the tune is a masterpiece.  Art later learned that Pete had recorded a version of the tune as "Rambling Hobo" for Lomax, so hence the two titles for what is essentially the same tune.  

It took me a while to learn this back in the day, and the secret came when I finally got the tab book for the album.  Although I can't play from tab very well, the written segment that Pete included in the comments for the tune related how Pete would hammer on to the first string while simultaneously dropping the thumb to the open second string, resulting in the "galloping" sound of the high part.  There is a good amount of drop thumb in my version, and Pete's to my ears, including on the second and third strings in the low part.  As mentioned, Art played the tune in gEADE on the Kicking Mule record, but I think Pete is closer to gDGCD... and I'm a step low from that, closer to fCFBbC.  The high part is played primarily on the first and second strings, and the low part is out of a F chord shape (fourth string third fret, third string second fret, second string open and first string third fret) with hammers and pulls in the second and third strings second fret.  I wish I could play it with the touches in Pete's playing, but I don't think anyone will come close to that.  This is a fun tune to play and pretty easy too.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I do. 


Edited by - RG on 10/07/2021 23:37:40

Oct 8, 2021 - 3:02:33 AM
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janolov

Sweden

41262 posts since 3/7/2006
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Thanks for a good choice! It is a great tune and you have made a good write-up. Pete Steele is one of my favorites. 

I haven't checked it up, but I have it in my head somewhere, that Ed Kahn wrote in the liner notes that when he came to Pete he doesn't have any banjo, because he have sold it to buy a revolver, so the recordings were made on Ed's banjo. 

Oct 8, 2021 - 8:49:57 AM
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1223 posts since 1/9/2012

Thanks for the post.

There's probably an important lesson in the banjos Steele is playing in the two photos, whatever their provenance.

Oct 8, 2021 - 8:59:29 AM

RG

USA

3118 posts since 8/7/2008

Thank you Jan and David. It seemed Pete was always "between" banjos, the Reed Martin story goes into that in some detail too, funny stuff. Pretty common with these guys, Rufus Crisp, Doc Boggs, Charlie Poole, Lee Hammons etc. Banjos are apparently like currency in the hills-haha

Oct 8, 2021 - 9:47:21 AM
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530 posts since 10/23/2003

Anyone who wants to do something buy or about Pete Steele even if they commit high crimes, misdemeanors, and are completely evil is OK in my book. I think pf 60-2 years ago going down to the public library main branch where they had some library of Congress record with Pete's Pay Day at Coal Creek and listening to it back in the old century. I really feel bad Pete's great music is not a bigger part of the banjo and old time revival. I hope more people will listen to the recording he made, especially I think on folkways the one with both Pete Playing banjo and singing, but also singing a number of traditional and sacred songs with his wife. WWe need this

Oct 8, 2021 - 11:50:49 AM

RG

USA

3118 posts since 8/7/2008

quote:
Originally posted by writerrad

Anyone who wants to do something buy or about Pete Steele even if they commit high crimes, misdemeanors, and are completely evil is OK in my book. I think pf 60-2 years ago going down to the public library main branch where they had some library of Congress record with Pete's Pay Day at Coal Creek and listening to it back in the old century. I really feel bad Pete's great music is not a bigger part of the banjo and old time revival. I hope more people will listen to the recording he made, especially I think on folkways the one with both Pete Playing banjo and singing, but also singing a number of traditional and sacred songs with his wife. WWe need this


Thanks Tony, couldn't agree more about Pete.  I wore out a couple copies of that Folkways LP playing it at 16rpm and trying to figure out Pete Steele's songs.  Good times.

Edited by - RG on 10/08/2021 11:53:31

Oct 8, 2021 - 2:33:50 PM

189 posts since 4/10/2010

RG,

I have learned, forgotten, and relearned this tune so many times over the years.
You've kick started the cycle again.

I always appreciate the tunes posted in TOTW, and I've learned a great many of them, but the stories, history, and interesting facts associated with the tune or title are my favorite part of the presentations. Thank you for an outstanding TOTW.

Oct 8, 2021 - 3:49:38 PM
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530 posts since 10/23/2003

quote:there is a typo in my post.  I am talking about the recording that has not only Pete's banjo but him singing some traditional sacred songs together with his wife.
 
Thanks
Originally posted by RG
quote:
Originally posted by writerrad

Anyone who wants to do something buy or about Pete Steele even if they commit high crimes, misdemeanors, and are completely evil is OK in my book. I think pf 60-2 years ago going down to the public library main branch where they had some library of Congress record with Pete's Pay Day at Coal Creek and listening to it back in the old century. I really feel bad Pete's great music is not a bigger part of the banjo and old time revival. I hope more people will listen to the recording he made, especially I think on folkways the one with both Pete Playing banjo and singing, but also singing a number of traditional and sacred songs with his wife. WWe need this


Thanks Tony, couldn't agree more about Pete.  I wore out a couple copies of that Folkways LP playing it at 16rpm and trying to figure out Pete Steele's songs.  Good times.


Oct 8, 2021 - 6:46:18 PM

RG

USA

3118 posts since 8/7/2008

quote:
Originally posted by writerrad
quote:there is a typo in my post.  I am talking about the recording that has not only Pete's banjo but him singing some traditional sacred songs together with his wife.
 
Thanks
Originally posted by RG
quote:
Originally posted by writerrad

Anyone who wants to do something buy or about Pete Steele even if they commit high crimes, misdemeanors, and are completely evil is OK in my book. I think pf 60-2 years ago going down to the public library main branch where they had some library of Congress record with Pete's Pay Day at Coal Creek and listening to it back in the old century. I really feel bad Pete's great music is not a bigger part of the banjo and old time revival. I hope more people will listen to the recording he made, especially I think on folkways the one with both Pete Playing banjo and singing, but also singing a number of traditional and sacred songs with his wife. WWe need this


Thanks Tony, couldn't agree more about Pete.  I wore out a couple copies of that Folkways LP playing it at 16rpm and trying to figure out Pete Steele's songs.  Good times.


 


That should be the Folkways one Tony, Lillie sings two songs on there, as Reed Martin points out, in their harmony singing Lillie sang an octave higher than Pete... really good stuff.  I don't think she sang on anything Lomax recorded.

Oct 8, 2021 - 6:49 PM

RG

USA

3118 posts since 8/7/2008

quote:
Originally posted by Mtngoat

RG,

I have learned, forgotten, and relearned this tune so many times over the years.
You've kick started the cycle again.

I always appreciate the tunes posted in TOTW, and I've learned a great many of them, but the stories, history, and interesting facts associated with the tune or title are my favorite part of the presentations. Thank you for an outstanding TOTW.


Thanks for the kind words, appreciate it and glad to get that cycle going for you again-haha!  Agree with you, the TOTW's are a lot of fun, look forward to them every Friday.  Thanks for your contributions too, some mighty good tunes you've posted...

Oct 8, 2021 - 9:09:36 PM
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6745 posts since 6/27/2009

Fantastic, RG, and you play it twice as fast as me.  After listening to the source recordings, I too went to a tab instead from Art in his book with two DVDs called Art Rosenbaum's Old-Time Banjo Book. (It has 47 tunings.) 

I tuned down the 5th string of his sawmill tuning for Rambling Hobo, the title he uses in the book.  Art says the 5th string can go both ways (either a g note or an f) and functions more rhythmically than harmoniously when it's not tuned down. In otherwords, his tab on page 51 is in gDGCD tuning. The key he uses for the tune is F, so the 5th string didn't harmonize for most of it and I wanted it to, so I tuned it down to an f.   

Art said he later came to know the tune as Rambling Hobo, which I learned from Doc Watson. I hear similarity in the beginning of the Pete Steele recording of Rambling Hobo above. 
 

Pete Steele sure had nimble fingers!


Edited by - JanetB on 10/08/2021 21:13:50

Oct 9, 2021 - 1:28:36 PM
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RG

USA

3118 posts since 8/7/2008

Love that version Janet, as always so thoughtfully played!

In the article that I linked from Reed Martin wrote, he relates that he asked Pete if he could photograph his hands... Pete was a little taken aback and asked why... Reed replied something to the effect of "so I can prove to future generations that you didn't have any extra fingers" - hahahaha Reminds me of the story of jazz great Art Tatum, who, although nearly blind, learned to play piano from piano rolls that commonly have an "extra key"... so he essentially learned to play with five fingers and two thumbs which gave him amazing dexterity and speed... I guess maybe Pete could be the Art Tatum of old time!

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