Writing the ballad of the Steelie King


The music and 90% of the stanzas of the Steelie King were created over a period of many weeks while driving my 1968 Corvette convertible on a winding mountain road commute to/from my day job as a programmer at IBM in south San Jose.

It was 1974, and I was living in the house of a friend, Mike Walters, in Boulder Creek, CA, while he was taking many months off to travel in Costa Rica.  It was a fun  (but long) commute to IBM; twelve miles over a narrow winding Bear Creek Road to the freeway, then exiting a mile or so later and going another 12 miles on back roads to get to IBM.

One morning, I was reminiscing about playing marbles as a kid, and I remembered the "steelie" that Johnny Robinson had brought to school in the 4th grade, and what a tough-looking scraggly kid he was.  He had intense gray-blue eyes, tousled hair, freckles, and was pretty cocky as he wiped us out with that steel "marble", which, of course, was really a ball-bearing.

Somewhere along Bear Creek Road that morning, the first two lines came into my mind, and the melody for them came in also:

With eyes of Ice Steel Blue he comes

the Steelie King comes to town

You'll only see him smile one time

That's when your head's hung down

And so, there was a "start" to something.  I hummed the melody, sang the words, to get a "feel" for whatever was to follow. It began to move forward when I realized that perhaps the start was really a "chorus" refrain. Then the first words were not long in coming:

Most every day, when the bell said "play", we'd head for the open field

where the scrubby weeds from last year's seeds kept the gopher holes concealed.

A "ballad" form was unfolding, and in fact it would follow a meter similar to that of  Robert Service's  "The Cremation of Sam McGee", which I loved at first reading in high school,  and whose works had been a favorite of my father.

It remained to create, line by line, the meter and rhyme and story of the ballad.  That day  the first stanza was  completed:

Most every day, when the bell said "play", we'd head for the open field

where the scrubby weeds from last year's seeds kept the gopher holes concealed.

With a stealthy crouch and a leather pouch we'd play the game of Chase;

'til a sharp crrraacckk increased one sack and left two kinds of face.

Now there was a "picture" of the scene, and a feeling/flow of our game.  That evening, working with a guitar, the "background" rhythm (a sprightly cadence that simulates the pause-skip-hop way the game is played) became part of the feeling of the ballad, although it was clear that the words themselves (except for the chorus) would be spoken:


Over and over,  I recited the words aloud and in my head,  usually in the morning (more creative than the after-work drive home, which was more to "wind down" from a day in computer-land, although the ballad helped that winding-down process on some days).

I never had any notion of where the ballad was heading; it pretty much created itself out of the flow of words and events,  as they slowly came into being in the ballad over a period of weeks.  I think that the entire ballad probably took about four weeks to get to an initial complete version. Some evenings, I would write down the new lines of that day, and go over them.  But mostly, it was line by line, day by day, on Bear Creek Road,  that the ballad moved forward.

When the "showdown" arrived, I remembered the "bombsie", and the words (to be slightly changed later) came:

But a "Bombsie" call and raised steel ball made my heart and lungs stand still

But what next?  Would he miss? Would I best that horrible fellow?  Generally, that is what happens in "Gunfighter" ballads.  Good vs. Evil, and Good triumphs.  From the beginning, this had certainly been my operational assumption. But for some reason,  I tried it the other way:

Then with fierce aplomb he launched that bomb --- and smashed my agate apart.

Well, that was it --- the bad guy won.   Now what?  Certainly the chorus lines:

With eyes of Ice Steel Blue he comes

the Steelie King comes to town

You'll only see him smile one time

That's when your head's hung down

And I was a tough good-guy, so I would NOT hang my head down:

A thousand screams tore at my seams but I kept them locked inside

and faked it so he'd never know a part of me had died

My head held high in the morning sky, I turned away for awhile

Now what? How could I turn this into a victory?  Somehow the ballad had to move forward from this point, to some kind of meaningful conclusion.   Most of my poetry has worked towards a "hopeful" or surprise ending, or some kind of lesson, so there was clearly more work to do. 

you'll only see him smile one time

So, I had to somehow erase that smile I had turned away from.   Maybe I could challenge him again, with an old scrap-heap ordinary marble, and beat him. Bet ALL my marbles and beat him!  Glorious! Just like in the movies:

My head held high in the morning sky, I turned away for awhile

then with eyes ablaze I whirled unfazed and erased that steely smile.


"Look here, you punk, I've got more spunk than your kind will ever know;

I'll bet my stash, shoot with lowly trash, and have you eating crow."

That's it! Be tougher than the tough guy!  But something happened there, in the unfolding of the ballad. I never wrote those words, didn't move in that direction.  Something put me inside the Steelie King --- and he had feelings too:

then a low soft sound brought me around - to face the Steelie King smile.

But what'd I see?  --- there, on one knee ---teardrops were falling on dew;

Cascading down beneath that frown from the eyes of ice-steel blue.

From that moment, understanding and recognition of both sides of the battle fell into place.

It seems that, in the world now and throughout history,  the concept of stepping into the shoes of one's antagonists is the rarely-taken path to eliminating the gunfighter mentality which drenches the world in ever-repeating cycles of misery.

Over the years, I changed a word here or there, where the flow of sounds/images seemed to need improvement.  But no new stanzas were added, and the music remained unchanged.  Originally created in 1974, in concert with the writing of the ballad, the music was finally put to paper in 2002.

In writing the ballad I benefited from the same technique that has always worked for me --- get a "first line" and/or music melody and the rest will follow, slowly but surely.  Usually words and music follow in immediate sequence (although sometimes the musical melody is first, and the first words then fall into place as the melody is mentally played over and over).

To write something, whether music or poetry or prose or even a story, it seems necessary  ONLY to get started on it.  The rest will follow, as we work with what has been started, and put ourselves  into the images and feelings created by the words --- most importantly, by the "sounds" of the words, and their movement/flow. It might take hours or weeks, of course; trying to "force" it is rarely fruitful.

While finalizing the first draft of the complete ballad, I found a copy of  "Sam McGee" and checked the meter and rhythm, and was delighted to find that Robert Service was not constrained by perfect syllable-counts in the meter and phrasing.  Until then, I had been concerned about this, since I had no training in poetry.

Many have suggested that this would make an excellent children's story. It could be so effectively illustrated!   Some have suggested it would also make an excellent "short video" with children acting the parts while the music plays and the ballad is recited.  If you know someone who could help in this process, please contact me.

I believe everyone can write music and poetry --- and should.  In some cultures, even if you are "successful in  business", you are not well respected unless you also excel at the arts, because you are not "balanced".  We in America would do well to ponder this, as we cut out school music programs and athletics and drama. I speak as a person with a degree in mathematics who has served over 30 years in the hi-tech industry; it is the balance (or imbalance) between "heart" and "mind" that will determine the course of civilization and the legacy we leave for future generations.




Ballad of the Steelie King   Origins of the Steelie King   Steelie King -- the Path Not Taken 

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