A Lifetime of Achievement
If you grew up in San Diego, chances are your classroom would have been treated to a visit by a man who played guitar and sang funny folk songs. You wouldn’t have easily forgotten this engaging man, because when he sang his songs, history came alive. That man would have been Sam Hinton, probably San Diego’s (and the country’s) most respected and beloved folk music historian, who has delighted both young and old for more than 50 years. His stature in the folk music community reaches far and wide and goes back many years. Just go to the massive folk music website-resource Mudcat.org and type in Sam Hinton’s name. You’ll pull up pages and pages from their email forum, written by people who have given credit to Hinton for teaching them a song or for influencing them in some way.
As a child growing up in Oklahoma, where he was born, and Texas, where his family later moved, Hinton absorbed what was all around him: an abundance of natural beauty and wildlife and a wide-ranging diversity of musical styles, which gave shape and direction to his interests. He was drawn to the music of the common folk and soaked up all that he could. He was also a precocious instrumentalist and recalls, “Mama used to love to tell people how she took me to Jenkins Music Store in Tulsa when I was five years old and bought me a harmonica. She said I was playing “Turkey in the Straw” before we got out of the store.” Later, when he was eight years old, his grandfather bought him a button accordion.
By the time he was old enough for high school, Hinton’s family moved to Crockett, Texas, but not before he decided to learn every song in the world. Around that time his sister sent him a copy of Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, published in 1927. In it were several songs Hinton already knew, which seemed to validate his musical pursuits. He picked up the east Texas-Louisiana music that floated around the area, learning Cajun music on his button accordion. He also grew to appreciate the musical traditions of the black people who lived there, particularly the gospels and spirituals. He says his interest in religious music may have been part of one of his early aspirations to become a preacher.
He admired his black neighbors for more than just their music. “I never felt comfortable with other boys my own age when I was in high school,” says Hinton. He felt more at home with the adult blacks who lived in and around the small town because “they took me as I was,” he says. They accepted his interest in music and natural history, even encouraging him at times. Hinton says, “There was a black man, Big Jim was his name. This was when armadillos were first coming up from Mexico into Texas, and Big Jim got an armadillo for me.” Because of intense racial animosity among his peers and even his family, Hinton had to socialize on the sly with the people who accepted him. The sting of racial hatred is something Hinton has been aware of from a very early age. His seven-year-old eyes saw the race riots that tore apart Tulsa in 1921. “I remember my parents took us up to a hilltop. I remember seeing a church burning,” he says.
In 1934, Hinton headed off to Texas A&M to study zoology, supporting himself with work as a musician, sign painter, and calligrapher,; he even sold snake venom to a pharmaceutical company. After two years at the agricultural college, he hitchhiked to Washington D.C., where his parents and sisters had moved. Mining the cornucopia of sheet music from the 1800s that his mother had collected (Hinton’s mother was a music teacher), Hinton formed an ensemble with his sisters. Calling themselves the Texas Trio, they performed old-time and folk music.
In 1937, Hinton’s father loaded his children in the family car and drove them up to New York City to appear on Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, a popular national radio talent show. They made enough of an impression that they were asked to make a return performance, the usual precursor to being hired with the review. Hinton was surprised, however, when Bowes offered the 19-year-old an opportunity to join his revue right on the air. Billed as “Texas Sam Hinton,” folk singer and novelty instrumentalist, he spent the next two years on the road with the Major Bowes’ Transcontinental Revue.
Back in 1937, 35 cents paid admission to an afternoon or evening at a movie palace. With their plush carpets and marble balustrades, these gilded, rococo theaters offered refuges of fantasy where one could escape from the hardships of life during the Great Depression. The curtain would rise for two full-length features of love and adventure, the stage hands rolling out the electronic speakers to accommodate “talkies,” the new sensation. Between the first and second movie a live vaudeville show would dazzle audiences with dancers, jugglers, and men in evening coats sawing pretty women in half. Also sharing the stage was a young man with a pennywhistle, harmonica, and guitar, who performed in hundreds of shows and rode the rails to all but two of the 48 states.
“I sang folk music before it was popular,” says Hinton about the time he spent with Major Bowes. This was long before the Kingston Trio or the names Peter, Paul, and Mary had more than biblical significance. “I would have to explain to the audiences that I was singing folk songs,” he says.
After a couple of years with the vaudeville company, however, Hinton felt a strong calling back to his other love: the living sciences. With his parents now settled in a suburb of Los Angeles, he enrolled at UCLA to pursue a degree in zoology. Once, while out in the desert studying reptiles, Hinton heard that John Steinbeck was at one of the Okie camps in the area. Being a great fan of Steinbeck’s, Hinton got up his nerve and went over to meet him. He was also introduced to Woody Guthrie, who also happened to be there.
Hinton continued to play music on the side while a student at UCLA, appearing in the long-running musical revue Meet the People and performing in the local schools. He soon realized that the kind of music he played seemed to be just right for children. Later on he began to regard folk music as an expression of history, which helped him tailor his song selection to the period of history a particular class was studying.
After graduating from UCLA in 1941, Hinton became director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, then left to take a job as an editor/illustrator at the University of California Division of War Research in San Diego. In 1947 Hinton was named curator of the Aquarium-Museum at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla where he served for 18 years. In 1965, Hinton moved to the upper campus and became assistant director, and two years later associate director, of UCSD’s Relations with Schools, which took him all over the state of California and other states as well, visiting high school classrooms to promote the university. Chris Vitas, San Diego’s versatile violinist, recalls that Hinton incorporated music into his promotion of UCSD. “I remember he came to my high school to talk about the university. He had a harmonica and a little concert guitar. He sang folk songs and Pete Seeger songs,” he says. A flexible work schedule allowed Hinton to work extra hours so he could take the time to perform at folk concerts and festivals.
With friendships that go back decades, the names of such American folk music icons as Gene Ritchie and Jack Elliot roll off Hinton’s tongue easily. As a friend of Pete Seeger, patriarch of American folk music, since the 1940s, he credits Seeger for suggesting that he (Hinton) drop some of the novelty schtick from his performance. Today Hinton is considered a folk icon in his own right. He founded the San Diego Folk Song Society more than 50 years ago, a group comprised of music lovers who regularly gathered at the Old Time Café in Leucadia to listen and perform folk music. This group, now called the San Diego Folk Heritage, honors him, having rechristened their annual spring event the Sam Hinton Folk Heritage Festival.
Kent Johnson, cofounder and publisher of the San Diego Troubadour, loves to tell the story about an experience he had following Hinton’s performance at the Adams Avenue Street Fair in 2000. Johnson wanted to introduce Derek Duplessie, already a talented singer-songwriter in his own right then at the age of 12, to Hinton. As the two of them approached the stage to say hello to Hinton, Chris Hillman, of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Desert Rose Band fame, was climbing the stairs to the stage for his performance. Just when Johnson and Duplessie reached the stairs, Hinton was coming down and Hillman was going up. Hillman turned to Hinton and said, “Sam, I just have to say you were one of my idols when I was growing up.” Johnson felt as if he’d just witnessed a significant moment in history.
Johnson also describes Hinton’s indulgence with an audience or classroom. He says, “I first met Sam when I was taking a child development class at San Diego City College back in 1998. I offered to pick him up and bring him to the class. He was there for an hour and a half, singing songs and showing the students his different instruments. It was just amazing.”
Pennywhistles, accordions, guitars, and songs can be a lot of fun, but they can sometimes cause trouble, at least for some people. In the early 1950s Hinton made a recording of “Talking Atomic Blues.” “Others had already recorded the song. The Sons of the Pioneers had a version of it but I was the first person to have a hit with that song. I recorded it on ABC Eagle and once it got popular, Columbia bought it up,” recalls Hinton. Unfortunately, this happened at a time when Joe McCarthy was in the Senate and the Un-American Activities Committee was in the House. Because of the menace from these and the Red hysteria in general, Columbia dropped Hinton’s recording, and it appears that the song got its author, Vern Partlow, fired from his job as a journalist. Hinton was listed with the California Un-American Activities Committee and believes he may have lost a few musical gigs because of the Red baiting. Notwithstanding, his recording of the tune was released in the early 1960s on the Newport Broadside label.
As though he weren’t busy enough, Hinton has authored three books on marine biology, one of them for children. As an artist, he illustrated two of his books and two books by other authors. He has produced more than 1,200 installments of “The Ocean World,” a weekly newspaper feature. He is a deft calligrapher who furnished all the calligraphy for the Rise Up Singing songbook. As an instructor, Hinton has taught college courses in music, folklore, art, science, and geography. In the early 1990s he spent two years on the board of directors for Sing Out! magazine and served as director of the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts. He has recorded five albums of folk songs and is featured on several recordings of the now legendary Newport Folk Festivals.
In 1940 Hinton married Leslie Forster. Talented in her own right as an artist and classically trained violist, Leslie settled with Sam in La Jolla to be close to his work at the aquarium. While living in Palm Springs, the Hintons became acquainted with Albert Frey, the famed architect who designed their spacious yet comfortable home in La Jolla Shores, where the couple still lives. Both of their children make their livelihood with words. Son Matt is a rodeo announcer and writer, and their daughter, Leanne, is chair of the linguistics department at the University of California, Berkeley.
At 87 Hinton’s bright eyes and smile persist. Though he ceased to perform two years ago, Hinton is still working with his music. He has 1,650 songs committed to memory and is currently recording all of them. There is much more to learn about Hinton and his amazing life at his web site, samhinton.org.
Reprinted from the San Diego Troubadour, June 2004.