1897-1965 - Smyth County, Virginia
PHOTO AND ARTICLES COURTESY OF AND © FOLK LEGACY RECORDS
Hobart Smith was born in Smyth County, Virginia, on May 10, 1897. He was the oldest of four brothers in a family of eight children born to King and Louvine Smith. Hobart says that his is the seventh generation of Smiths in Virginia since his ancestors came from England. Thus it is probable that many of the Old World songs in his family have a long development in America since they first crossed the Atlantic.
The name of Hobart Smith and that of his sister, Mrs. Texas Gladden, first became familiar to folksong collectors through their recordings made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. [Smith also recorded a solo album in 1963, which was issued on the Folk Legacy label. For more details on this album, see the Discography below.]
GREW UP INTO IT"
I started playing the banjo when I was seven years old. When I was three, I commenced playin' on an old fire shovel. I was raised in an old log house that had a fireplace and my mother had a bar that went across the fireplace with hooks that came down to cook her stuff in the pots and then she had a big oven and lid and she'd bake her bread and pull out those coals with that shovel cover it up with red-hot coals, you know and bake her bread thataway. We didn't have any cook-stove at that time. They said I was just three years old, I'd get that fire shovel and just pick on it; and they asked me what I was pickin' and I just said "Sour Colics!"
Now, I call my style of banjer pickin' the old-timey rappin' style. I learned it from my daddy. When I was seven years old, I could play a tune on the banjer. So, my daddy, seein' I was interested in it, he ordered me a little, small, short-necked banjer from Sears-Roebuck and I commenced pickin' on the banjer when I was seven years old.
Well, after that, I got onto a gittar I commenced playin' that. Now, the first guitar I ever owned, I worked in a corn field and bought it. I gave four dollars for it. I was fourteen years old then. So, then I liked the fiddle. I got on the fiddle after that. I got to playin' 'em all and all of 'em sounded pretty good to me.
My father and mother was both banjer pickers. I started the banjer at home. I didn't learn the gittar at home; I learned it from different men. Now, the first of the gittar playin' that I really liked was when a bunch of colored men came in there, oh, way back yonder. I was just about fourteen or fifteen years old. It was along about that time that Blind Lemon Jefferson came through and he stayed around there about a month. He stayed with the other colored fellers and they worked on the railroad there, and he'd just play and sing to entertain the men in that work camp. I think right about there I started on the gittar. I liked his type of playin'. I just watched his fingers and got the music in my head and then I'd thumb around till I found what I was wantin' on the strings.
The way it was with me, I just grew up and it seemed like I had a feelin' in me when I'd hear this old-time music. Well, I didn't hear anything else, you know, for years and years. I didn't know anything about this fingering the banjer (Scruggs-style three-finger picking). That hadn't come out yet. Everybody rapped the banjer. I'd get around old folks that played a banjer and I'd listen to that and was just as full of music as I could be. It'd just register on me up and down like a thermometer. And, you see, I'd get that in my ear and then I'd get ahold of that banjer.
You've first got to get the tune in your mind and then find it with your fingers keep on till you find what you want on that neck. But keep that tune in your mind just like you can hear it a-playin'. I've been to the cornfield many of a time when I was a farmer and I'd hear a good fiddle tune or a good banjer pieces and I'd commence whistlin' it. And I'd whistle that till my mouth got so tired, and I'd go home keepin' it on my mind. I'd go pretty fast and I'd whistle all the way into the holler on the mountain and my banjer would be hangin' on the wall. Sometimes I'd forget where it was at, and I'd whistle right loud and that banjer would answer me on the wall and I'd go get her. I'd keep that tune right on my mind and I'd find that tune on the strings before I'd quit.
There was a feller I was raised up with by the name of John Greer. The fact about it all of my banjer pickin' is John Greer's type. Now, my daddy picked a banjer; he picked the old-timey rap. I can play it just like him. He kept his thumb on the thumb string and that thumb string was just a-goin' all the time. Now, John Greer come along and went from thumb string to the bottom, double-notin', and he was the best man I ever heard on that banjer. And I patterned after him. "Coo-Coo Bird" and "The Banging Breakdown" I got from John Greer.
Now the first fiddle that ever I heard in my life, when I was a kid there was an old colored man who was raised up in slave times. His name was Jim Spencer. He played "Jinny Put the Kettle On" and all those old tunes like that, you know. And he would come up to our house and he'd play one night for us, and he'd go over to my uncle's and play one night for them, and then go down to my aunt's in the other holler we lived in three different hollers in the mountains, you know. He'd make a round. Now, that was the first fiddling I ever heard in my life, although both my grandaddies were fiddlers. But my granddaddy on my mother's side died of TB in the old Civil War and my other grandaddy, I never did hear him but saw a little bit on it, buy my daddy said he used to be a good fiddler. So, I'd hear old-timey fiddlers in different places and I"d just get it in my head and work it out with my fingers.
We'd have a square dance in the community twice a week. We'd have one on Wednesday night and Saturday night. But then, in my home, all of my kinfolk would meet and my daddy would pick the banjo and we'd dance to twelve o'clock every night of the week. We'd go to the mountain and get us some back-logs to throw on this fireplace to throw the heat out. The boys would all help us drag wood off'n the mountain and then we'd fire up that fire and your legs'd be burnin' off and your back a-chillin', but we really enjoyed it. The way they would do the square dance in them days, they'd have one in one person's house, say tonight say"Where'll we have the next 'un?" "In my house, tomorrow night." Just like prayer meetin'; catch it around from house to house. There was square cancan every night. They'd work pretty hard during the day, but they'd get ready for it. They'd come in and get washed and they were ready for it.
My first life was farming. My daddy'd farmed all his life and I went into farming. And I went into wagoning long before the trucks came around, you know, or any cars at all. My daddy had a team and I had a team and we'd haul coal for people and move people and go to the station and get trunks out. And then I'm a pretty good painter; I used to paint a whole lot. And I was a butcher; I worked with the Olin-Mathieson people for twelve years, a-butchering for 'em. At the time of the first World War, I had got married and was lookin' for my first kid. Well, I got fourth class and the war never lasted but sixteen months and I never was called.
Me and my sister, Texas, went on Whitetop for the festivals. I met Horton Barker and Richard Chase at Whitetop. We played for Mrs. Roosevelt there in '36. Then, after she went back, she sent a telegram to Roanoke, to my sister, wantin' to know if we'd come up to the White House and sing some of those old songs. She wanted her husband to hear 'em. And so we did go. We went up there and spent a couple of nights with them and we had a program.
I had a band. I had two boys that played with me. I played with Tom (Clarence) Ashley thirty or thirty-five years ago. I played in a minstrel show for two years. I played my own music and danced my own music that's one curiosity that everybody thought so much about. No, I wasn't makin' a livin' out of it. We'd just go places and play and maybe they'd give us so much. I played in dance halls back along in Hoover's time, you know, when you couldn't get ahold of a dollar nowhere. I played the fiddle the most tunes like "Golden Slippers" and "Coming Around the Mountain" for dances.
The fact about it I went into this pop'lar stuff and got to playin' on that and then when I got in with Alan Lomax in 1942, he wanted me to pull back into the old folk music. And he said, "Don't you ever leave it no more!" I had just about left it. I hadn't owned a banjer in twenty-five years till the Vega people sent me that banjer from Boston as a gift several years ago. Pete Seeger got 'em to send it. I hadn't owned one in twenty-five years. Maybe I'd go to somebody's house and there'd be a banjer sittin' there and maybe I'd pick it up and play just one tune and set it down. I'd been playin' the fiddle and the gittar and the piano. And, you see, all of those old pieces on the banjer was just gettin' away from me and I didn't fool with 'em. But after I got this new banjer, why it came back to me in just a little time. In thirty days I was back just as good as I ever was.
So, I've had a life in music ever since I was a kid. I grew up into it and I'm still tryin' to play it.
[Folk Legacy Records will soon re-release Hobart Smith's first solo album on CD.] It was made in the studios of Chicago's WFMT by that station's program director, Norm Pellegrini, in October of 1963. The selection of songs and instrumentals was influenced by the desire to present a cross-section of Hobart's repertoire and to avoid repetition of material previously recorded on other labels.
Hobart Smith can also be heard on:
Global Village Music: CD 1004 "Virginia Traditions - Native Virginia Ballads"