Sam Hinton: The Road Not Taken

An Appreciation

By Ross Altman

Sixty years ago San Diego folk singer and marine biologist Sam Hinton had something quite astonishing for a traveling medicine show performer (Major Bowes Vaudeville Show)-a certified hit song. It was written by LA newspaperman (and co-founder of the Newspaper Guild in Southern California) Vern Partlow, in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Talking Ol' Man Atom, or The Talking Atomic Blues. It was that song in which Partlow came up with a closing couplet worthy of Alexander Pope:

Listen, folks; here is my thesis:

Peace in the world, or the world in pieces.

Sam's Decca recording became a minor novelty radio hit, until a wave of red scare propaganda during the beginning of the McCarthy era took it off the radio, and put Sam in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It wasn't the only popular progressive song that was blacklisted-the same fate befell Yip Harburg's and Earl Robinson's paean to the newly formed United Nations: We're In the Same Boat, Brother, as recorded by Howard Keel, who had starred in a 1940's production of Showboat.

Keel's recording aired nationally just once on CBS radio, but once was enough to unleash a right wing storm of protest similar to the sort now making news at Tea Party Revivals, Town Hell Meetings and Health Care Rallies attended by assault-weapons armed super patriots determined to wave their automatic rifles in the president's face.

Both Sam Hinton's prophetic recording-the harbinger of a forty years Cold War, and Howard Keel's visionary recording, a pre-John Lennon hymn to One World (Imagine), disappeared overnight, the only two genuine peace songs to disturb the Hit Parade until the folk scare of the 1960s. (Fortunately, Leadbelly also recorded We're In the Same Boat, Brother, so, like Galileo, the song managed to survive the Inquisition.)

Even before The Weavers were fired by Decca Records and joined the ranks of blacklisted artists like Paul Robeson, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, and The Hollywood Ten, Sam Hinton's brief commercial recording career was over. He too had the distinction of being fired by Decca Records-in the land of the free...

Sam did what Pete Seeger would eventually have to do-recorded for Moses Asch's fearless Folkways label (now Smithsonian Folkways), a non-commercial label that welcomed political artists like Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Pete.

Sam Hinton was Moses Asch first and last "singing biologist," a strange scientific-artist hybrid who recorded songs that celebrated and actually taught subjects like Darwin's theory of Evolution. In my recent FolkWorks column, Evolution Mama: Folk Music and The Culture War, I pay homage to Sam's groundbreaking recording of It's a Long Way From Amphioxus, which in its own delightful way struck a blow for academic freedom and scientific progress.

But Sam soon realized that the road Pete Seeger was able to take was not for him-to make a full-time career as a barnstorming musician and be able to support a family too. Commercial success was an accident for Sam, and he didn't see it as something he could count on again. So he took the road not taken, which in his case meant pursuing a full-time academic career as a marine biologist, out of the spotlight of the entertainment world that had led to his unwelcome attention from HUAC. He became a professor at UC San Diego and began his long association with their Scripps Institute of Oceanography, of which he eventually became the director.

It provided the necessary cover for this authentic American folk singer, straight out of East Texas, who had inherited and diligently collected a song-bag richly integrated with songs from African-Americans, Cajuns, and Anglo-Saxon sources, all of whom congregated in or near his home.

But the songs Sam became most closely and affectionately associated with were what he called "old songs for young people." His records and live performances of children's songs, barnyard classics like I Have a Goose, novelty performances like The Arkansas Traveler, in which he regales the audience with a miniature harmonica he tucked inside his cheek to play the tune, while telling the story of the encounter of the farmer and the traveler, and tongue twisters like Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts, have charmed schoolchildren and folk audiences for more than fifty years.

He played them all on his ancient Washburn acoustic guitar, unlike any on the folk circuit, and he played in his own unpretentious but quite sophisticated and delicate finger-style that perfectly complemented each song with back harmonies and musical call-and-response passages. His folk festival appearances in Southern California were always looked forward too and treasured memories afterwards.

Without any of the fanfare that accompanied the musical careers of better-known folk singers, Sam created a body of work that seems almost effortless in its scholarly detail, tracing a "family tree of folk songs" from old Ireland to the American west on one album, and recalling those songs from his East Texas childhood on another. When you heard Sam you knew you were getting the real history of each song he sang-they were never just "cowboy songs" to Sam-he could tell you which side of the Rio Grande they came from, and which cowboy Carl Sandburg (or Sam himself) collected them from.

Friends of Sam Hinton in San Diego put together a perfect biography of Sam-a combination of oral history and written accounts of his many lives as a folk singer and passionate scientist of the sea.

But for me the song that brought both sides of his dual personality into sharp relief remains Talking Old Man Atom, a song which satirizes both politicians and scientists in one unified plea to humanity as a whole:

Gonna preach you all a sermon ‘bout Old Man Atom

And I don't mean the Adam in the Bible datum,

I don't mean the Adam that Mother Eve mated

I mean the one that science liberated-

The one that Einstein's scared of-

And brother, when Einstein's scared-I'm scared!

Long after his Decca recording career was over, Sam still preached that sermon, from the bully pulpit of a folk festival stage. He may have been preaching to the choir, but we were all delighted to hear him take on the powers that be-both those in Los Alamos who created the bomb, and those in Washington who decided to use it-the only weapon of mass destruction ever dropped on a civilian population.

Sam was one of a kind-an American troubadour and marine biologist who left more than his footprints in the sand. He left a treasury of folk music that will continue to charm and educate children and adults alike long after he is gone. But those on the road less traveled will miss him.