Recently in Personal Category

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.

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


Long before it was fashionable, my parents were in their 40s (41 and 47, to be precise) when I was born. My father's parents were long dead by then; I didn't even meet many of his siblings. My mother's father lived in Switzerland, and I only met him once, when I was eight years old. My only memory of him is really his sitting in a chair, looking at me, and saying, "Your dolly has a dirty face." In fact, the doll's face was just made of dark carved wood. My mother's mother was therefore the only grandparent I had much contact with. She lived nearby in a retirement home for Swiss people, then later, when her dementia got to be too much for them to handle, in a nursing home slightly more distant. She died when I was 13. My only real memory of her is her having dinner with us sometimes and playing checkers, where she played by European instead of American rules and I thought she was cheating. Or maybe she had simply forgotten rules and made up new ones; I don't remember the detail.

Anyway. It's only in the last few years that I've thought to ask my brother, who knows everything, a little more about these folks.

My maternal grandfather, I've always known, was a vaudeville artist. He trained dogs to perform scenes from plays, and somewhere in the family there are books of photographs of the dogs wearing costumes and even shoes (getting them to wear shoes was apparently his claim to fame and skill). It sounds dreadful now, but I imagine at the time it was pretty amazing entertainment. My mother toured with him for a while before she got married, and always said how much she hated the experience despite meeting other Vaudevillians of the time such as Milton Berle; she told me she'd held "Baby" Rose Marie in her lap. I think I was more impressed with that than Mother was, since Rose Marie was a favorite of mine on the Dick Van Dyke Show (not for her constant efforts to meet men but for her wit, her egalitarian relationship with the other writers, and the fact that (unlike the ghastly Laura Petrie) she had an interesting job and was clearly highly skilled at it.

On my wall, I have a map of all the places I played in the US and elsewhere as a folksinger; this week my brother sent me a PDF of a typewritten list my grandfather kept of all his world travels between 1887 and 1950 (with times outfor the wars). I can imagine the pride with which he kept it: he toured all over Europe, including the Folies Bergere, the US, and even Australia. His tours in 1915 and 1916 include San Francisco, LA, Indianapolis, Winnipeg, Vancouver - all places I played myself - plus a side trip to Auckland. It was hard enough doing all that by car and plane; imagine doing it by boat and much slower land transit. My mother was, I think, rather ashamed of him and his profession; she always took my involvement in "show business" (ie, *folksinging*!) as a personal attack.

My other grandfather turns out to have been a butcher in New York City. Learning this made me absurdly happy: it's a good, honest profession.

So: this is what makes a middle-class folksinger. Now we know.


As many know, Guy Kewney's final send-off (although there's still to be a party/memorial service next month sometime) was Thursday. It was a surprisingly happy funeral, with much laughter and many good Guy stories told. This was my favorite, told by Phil Kemp, who was Guy's friend for 44 years.

>>So the story goes that when Lucy and Alice were little he decided to build them a sandbox (known here as a sandpit) in the back yard. And he built a very respectable one. Happiness. And then they went on vacation. And came back to find that all the neighborhood cats had said, "Oh, *cool*! An outdoor toilet!" A normal person would empty it out, buy more sand, and keep it covered. Guy was not a normal person. He sifted the sand, removed all the turds, and then decided to sterilize the sand to reuse it. So he poured it all, stinking of ammonia, into a giant kettle he found in the basement, added some bleach and water and god knows what else, and proceeds to boil it up on the stove.

At this point, a French cousin arrives to find a huge cloud of evil, ammonia-smelling steam, Guy dimly visible stirring the pot with a stick like a witch out of Macbeth. Cousin asks, "WTF?" Guy says, "Oh, just boiling some sand." Cousin replies without missing a beat, "Ah, la cuisine Anglaise." >>


David W. Long, RIP

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There is a popular mythology that holds that men and women can't be friends. I never believed this, and David Long was one of the reasons I felt justified in not believing it.

But I want to say something about language.

The first time I met David was over lunch in the summer of 1972. A friend named Dave Williams (with whom I've lost touch) and I had decided early in the summer session that we'd meet every day at the table just outside the cash registers in the Willard Straight Hall cafeteria at Cornell, because people we knew would see us there and join us. Early in the second week, someone I knew slightly (Mike Therow) sat down to join us, followed by someone who knew *him*. That was Barbara, and we liked her. So we invited her to join us every day, and she did. After about a month, she said she wanted us to meet her husband and she'd bring him the next day. We were pretty astonished that she was married because she was not much older than we were (we were prospective sophomores). And the next day, she introduced David. Who, if I remember correctly, sat through the entire meal without saying a word. He was painfully shy in those days, and Barbara often told me that their early relationship was marked by a lot of times when he would phone her and listen to her talk for a few hours. By my senior year, I had developed the habit of dropping by their Quarry Street apartment once every week or two around the time I knew Barbara would be getting home from work. I don't think she ever failed to invite me to stay for dinner; I don't remember him ever seeming displeased by the number of times he came home and found me there.

Only a little over a month ago, the day before I went back to London after the Christmas holidays, David and I went together to a singaround held by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society. I was, of course, in full exhibitionist mode, with three instruments and my best show-off manner on display. David said hello, and sat down, and, other than thanking me for the piece of venison sausage I brought him and explaining that he was just there to listen, hardly spoke for the next three hours while we played music. He told me later he'd enjoyed it, but my point is that even at nearly 60 David was self-effacing with unfamiliar people. He *did* have a fine line in sly, compact wit, which he displayed in person but even better in email. About 18 months ago, when his daughter, Alison, had visited me in London, I emailed him after she left and said, "What am I going to play with now?"

His reply:
I saw a story on the Today show this morning about extremely life-like dolls that a lot of women are collecting. No feeding, no changing, and they don't talk back.

We joked often about one of his least successful witticisms, which he delivered in about 1977, the morning I had to get up at 7am (in their Giles Street house in Ithaca) to get to Buffalo in time to perform a lunchtime concert: "You look like your eyes are sunk into your head."

You became David's friend by doing things with him: go on a bike ride, fix something, go along to his family reunion, go to a folk concert or the farm show, help raise his kids. I've never really been sure when I shifted from being Barbara's friend to being *their* friend, but I figure it was sometime around the late 1980s, after I'd moved overseas and came back to stay with them, sometimes for months at a time. I think it happened somewhere in the Marshall Street years between giving Owen early morning bottles and watching TV together.

We often teased David for being the only person on the planet who actually got annoyed when someone took over a chore he'd planned to do himself. Especially in recent years he was very insistent about washing the dishes; with my eyes open I can immediately call up an image of him carefully rubbing at a spot on a dish with an ungloved finger to get it perfectly clean. He got quite annoyed with me one time about five years ago when it was snowing heavily and, thinking to do him a favor, I shoveled the driveway and sidewalk before he came home from work. He had *plans* for that snow.

I've been reevaluating these incidents over the last couple of weeks as events have unfolded, and I now think it's wrong to think of them as purely a preference for routine (although it's true that the day I told him I'd had tuna fish for breakfast he looked at me as though I'd landed from Mars). I now think that part of his attachment to doing these tasks had to do with being a shy person for whom these formed the, or a, language by which he expressed his feelings for the people in his life. He cared for people by doing. He made fires when people were cold, got children breakfast, balanced checkbooks, filled bird feeders, moved furniture, grew vegetables, removed snow. Sometimes he fixed your car when you didn't want it fixed, or told you how to fix your computer when you felt you knew what you were doing. The angriest I think he ever got with me was when he was instructing me how to drive through Wheeling, West Virginia, a drive I'd made quite a few times and felt proficient about. But again, I think this might say something about what doing these tasks meant to him as a language of caring. I can't count the number of times he braved rush hour traffic to drive me to a distant airport, or got up at 3am to meet a train, always with good grace and humor. I hardly ever remember his missing a day of work and never remember him complaining about his job.

There are millions of stray adults in this world; there are very few people who are generous enough to allow one or two of those stray adults to graft themselves onto *their* families.

All that said, if he were here I'm sure we'd still tease him about doing the dishes. And for going to such extreme lengths to avoid being given the 60th birthday party he said he didn't want.

David W. Long, May 21 1950 - February 13 2010.

Marching bands
Mashed potatoes
Pumpkin chiffon pie
King's College Nine Lessons and Carols
Watching birds eat from the feeders
Weather news
Car Talk
Making German pancakes for the family on Christmas morning
A Prairie Home Companion
Football, baseball, hockey, basketball, tennis
Saturday Night Live

Looking for a job
WGAL's failure to transition correctly back to the Met broadcast
Baltimore Ravens (because they betrayed Cleveland)
Being teased about choosing too-small containers for leftovers
Squirrels ("rats with tails")


Help Guy and Mary Kewney...


UPDATE (April 8, 2010): Guy died in the early hours of this morning. We - Adrian (who did the hard work of organizing the Paypal end), Mary, and guy's daughter Lucy - would all like to thank everyone who joined in; your generosity undeniably helped make an awful situation a little less tough, and I know Guy was very moved by it. Guy did have life insurance, so the position now is rather different.

Lucy and Mary will be reading comments and responses posted at Guy's LIveJournal, and also at David Tebbutt's blog. *This* blog eats all non-spam comments for reasons I've never been able to understand or fix (it drives me mad).

PC Pro also has an obit.

As most of Guy's friends know, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and has been undergoing treatment for some months (he sporadically posts updates here. While Britain of course has the wonderful NHS, being ill and freelance is still a difficult financial combination.

Accordingly, Adrian Mars has volunteered to collect donations via Paypal to aid Guy and Mary cope with bills and possibly even give them the wherewithal for themselves the odd bit of luxury. Adrian is here merely acting as a conduit. Below are two buttons. Use the top one to send a donation to Guy and Mary with a note of who it's from. Use the bottom one if you'd like to send them an anonymous donation - that is, Adrian will know who you are, but Guy and Mary will not. Either way, credit card statements will show the name Adrian Mars as the recipient.


Use the button below for identified donations:

Use the below one for anonymous (identified to Adrian, but not Guy and Mary) donations:

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