February 1, 1937-August 30, 2011

September Song for Steve Parker

By Ross Altman

steve_parkerAs ragtime musician Steve Parker’s days dwindled down to a precious few, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a memorable afternoon with him and his beloved wife Sue, doing what he loved to do, playing music just a month before he passed away. Steve long ago taught me a string-band classic that no one else knew the words to—Bill Morgan and His Gal. And every time we got together we pulled it out and started singing:

Oh a man named William Morgan took his gal to see a play

And on their way back home they walked into a nice café

As soon as they were seated Liza grabbed the bill of fare

And when the waiter asked she ordered everything in there.

Steve’s eyes always lit up when he came to the second verse:

Bill says I see you’re hungry gal

And I don’t mean to squeal

But who do you suppose is going to pay for such a meal

You may have known me pretty long

But you got my initials wrong…

and then Steve would pause and smile just before the punch line:

My name is Morgan but it ain’t J.P.!

It had been a while since we had last seen each other, and very likely neither of us sang it except when we were together, so we had to struggle through the last verse, but it always worked its bit of magic—sealing our friendship with a song.

I wish I had known that would be the last time I’d see him; the following month, August 30, 2011, Steve passed away and now it’s too late to tell him how much I admired and loved him. He was a great musician, in Monika White’s unstinting words, “Fantastic mandolin teacher, player, writer, book producer and friend. Very sad.”

But like many of Steve’s friends, including me, she left out his most enduring accomplishment: in addition to his music, he was a brilliant painter. So let me put it as simply as the way he painted—in a few bold strokes:

Steve Parker, master mandolin and banjo player, ragtime composer and modern painter, has passed away. He has left a hole that, as Boswell said of Johnson, not only can no one fill, no one is even inclined to fill.

Like the artist hero of The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham’s novel based on the life of Paul Gaughin, ragtime musician Steve Parker has left a wall of paintings that his friends may discover only after his death. The final scene of Maugham’s 1919 masterpiece shows the leprosy-ridden hut of impoverished English painter Charles Strickland, so poor he couldn’t afford a canvas to paint on, and so painted his masterpiece on the walls of his thatched hut, to be discovered only by the Tahitian natives he immortalized in his work.

Steve_Parker_Double_Decker_drawingSteve’s wall is not a hut, but the art gallery of his web site, which is so packed with pictures it took more than an hour to load on my computer. But once loaded it left a dazzling array of color in landscapes, still lifes, portraits and figures, in oil, watercolor, evocative drawings of famous musicians and even illuminating copies of old masters such as Manet, Rembrandt and Matisse.

Maugham romanticized the Tahitians Gaughin painted; in reality they cut his paintings up for floor mats and dumped them into the sea, with no appreciation of their greatness. Charles Strickland’s narrator, however, stands in awe of their magnificence, as you will when you have spent a few hours in Steve’s virtual museum. Here is a modern master who will make you see the world in new ways, with an intensity of color and depth of passion that belied the friendly mandolin player a good many of Steve’s friends thought they knew from old-time music gatherings of more than thirty years throughout Southern California and beyond.

Maugham’s title was taken from a review of Of Human Bondage in which the novel's protagonist, Philip Carey, is described as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." [Wikipedia] According to a 1956 letter from Maugham, "If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don't look up, and so miss the moon."

Steve Parker kept his eyes on the moon, but he also kept one foot on the ground, and made his sixpence writing music instruction books based on the ragtime music he loved to arrange, perform and compose; in his own words:

My musical career started on the ukulele at 8 years old. Over the years I've played a number of instruments at various skill levels, including clarinet, cello, guitar, fiddle and tuba. I have finally settled on the banjo and the mandolin as my primary instruments. I taught an old-time mandolin workshop at McCabe's Guitar Store in Santa Monica, CA for some years and have served as a tutor on these instruments at festivals from Southern California to Fiddle Tunes at Port Townsend, WA. I've performed at numerous concerts and dances over the years, including 2 years with the Growling Old Geezers String Band. My proudest achievements have been the authorship of 2 ragtime music books: Ragtime for Fiddle and Mandolin and 16 Original Piano Rags and my latest book, 150 Hot Tunes for Fiddle & Mandolin. I created this website to make my books readily available and to help the spread of ragtime music.

Yield who will to their separation, wrote Robert Frost, my aim in living is to unite my avocation with my vocation, as my two eyes make one in sight. Steve was able to unite his avocation, painting, with his vocation, music, in a way that reinforced both; each of his books—including Clawhammer Banjo String Band Favorites—carries this description on its cover: Arranged, Illustrated & Recorded by Steve Parker.

They are not just vehicles for music; they are also works of art. Moreover, each of Steve Parker’s instrument cases was also a canvas for his artwork, and a thing of beauty in and of itself. There was no room on them for stickers of all the folk festivals he taught in, or political bumper stickers, or geographic place names. He was a walking art gallery.

And as Keats observed, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. That is what Steve Parker created, in both music and art, and that is why he will be remembered.

Steve Parker’s web site is All of his music books are available at McCabe’s and other fine music and book stores in Southern California. Here is an example of the kind of thoroughness with which all of Steve’s books were designed; from the note to the Clawhammer Banjo Book: The CD created to accompany this book contains all 200 tunes, with variations as indicated, plus all the scales and exercises in the Appendix. Because there is over 3 hours of recorded material, the disc was recorded in MP3 audio format. They were recorded at a moderate speed to facilitate learning. All tunes were recorded by me, in a home studio using two microphones and a Vega Whyte Laydie banjo.

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Ross will be performing a tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 at the CTMS Equinox Festival on Sunday morning, 9/11/11 at 10am