Hobart Smith – Blue Ridge Legacy

Ok here’s a real haunt. I mean a real old-school, dirt-road revenant. The mad stylings of MC Hob’. A one-man mountain. A freakish genius with a penchant for coaxing twisted gnarled jewels out of old musical roots. What can I say? He’s as wild as a jackrabbit and as unbelievable as a jackelope. There’s nobody like him. Not even Roscoe Holcomb, and he probably comes closest. I mean, Hobart can whip out ‘Cindy’ as a fiddle-banjo duet (i forget which he plays in this version, since he can do both… for all i know he’s probably playing them simultaneously… freak…) which is pretty standard fare for your every day old-time throw-in-an-extra-bar-this-time-around mountain music, but then he completely turns the tune on its head playing it on old-time mountain PIANO. The way this guy plays, it seems like the only thing that’s keeping the tune from falling apart is the instrument, which itself sounds like it’s about to fall apart. But that’s what makes it so compelling: he pushes every tune to the breaking point — one step further and you’ll fall over trying to dance to it. Then you apply this breaking point philosophy to a death-knell song like Last Chance. And the result is something as unforgettably haunting as Blind Willie Johnson or Dock Boggs, and a mite odder as well.

Rounder product description:
This collection of ballads, reels, and blues is the legacy of a Renaissance mountain man: Hobart Smith of Virginia. This Appalachian virtuoso was many things: a forceful singer, a brilliant guitarist, a masterful fiddler, a spellbinding banjoist, an innovative pianist, and a musical giant whose influence on old-timey music and the folk revival remains uncharted.

Hobart Smith was born on Little Mouton, Saltville, VA on May 10, 1897. Smith was the oldest of four brothers in a family of eight children born to King and Louvenia Smith. Both his parents were banjo pickers; his sister, Texas Gladden, a noted ballad singer.

Hobart began playing the banjo when he was seven, later the guitar and the fiddle. His repertoire of instruments also included piano, organ, harp, mandolin and most any other stringed instrument.

Recording magnate, folk and country music authority Alan Lomas of New York was the first to record Hobart. Lomas called Smith “the best mountain instrumentalist that I’ve ever found, and the forty-two recordings in the Library of Congress will always stand as proof of that.”

Later in his life, Smith performed in two movies to be used in a cultural exchange program with other countries. During his lifetime, Hobart Smith performed at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Constitution Hall, Washington, D. C., Radio City Music Hall and for Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also gave performances and seminars at many colleges in the Eastern part of the United States.

Throughout his life of entertainment, he performed with such well-known people as Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; Judy Collins; Doc Watson; Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Music critics across the country praised Smith’s work as being “the best that they had ever heart” (Chicago Daily News).

“One can learn so much about the Southern Mountain instrumental style by listening to Smith’s banjo and fiddle…his singing is in a hard-cider rural voice, alive with feeling” (New York Times).

Hobart once said, “I grew up with music and I’m still trying to play”. His last performance was on October 11, 1963 in Chicago, IL for which he received a standing ovation. On January 11, 1965, Hobart Smith went home to rest on Little Mountain. His music lives on!

as told by Hobart Smith

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.

Alan Lomax Collection: Portraits
Hobart Smith – Blue Ridge Legacy

Released 01/01/2001
Label: Rounder

1 – The Devil’s Dream – 02:29
2 – Drunken Hiccups – 02:50
3 – The Cuckoo Bird – 02:40
4 – Banging Breakdown – 01:00
5 – Arkansas Traveller – 01:43
6 – Railroad Bill – 02:58
7 – Clause Allen – 03:36
8 – Hangman, Swing Your Rope – 03:26
9 – Wayfaring Stranger – 02:03
10 – Sourwood Mountain (Piano) – 01:22
11 – Going Down the Road Feeling Bad – 01:19
12 – Pateroller – 01:44
13 – Chinquipin Pie – 01:50
14 – Last Chance – 02:20
15 – Jim Along – 02:28
16 – Two brothers (The Little Schoolboy) – 03:55
17 – Ellen Smith – 02:27
18 – Graveyard Blues – 03:24
19 – K.C. Blues – 03:05
20 – Unidentified electric guitar tune – 02:20
21 – Cindy (string band) – 01:23
22 – At an Old-Time Dance (interview) – 04:45
23 – Cindy (piano) – 02:02
24 – The Thrill of Dance Music (interview) – 00:22
25 – What Did the Buzzard Say to the Crow? – 01:40
26 – Buck Dance – 01:30
27 – Old Joe Clark – 01:55
28 – Dixie – 02:25
29 – Sourwood Mountain (banjo) – 01:06
30 – Hawkins County Jail – 02:41
31 – Rocky Mountain – 01:43

what’d he say?
mp3 128kbps | w/ cover | 64mb

you unrepentant Faheyites will notice Cindy is the melody that JF used for ‘Tell Her to Come Back Home’

and if you like this and want more, there’s another disc available from Rounder or at the Broke Down Engine archive.

This entry was posted in old-time, Roots. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Hobart Smith – Blue Ridge Legacy

  1. MG says:

    Thanks! You got one of the best blogs on the web…. and they are few.

  2. Gadaya says:

    Hobart Smith is great and his sister, Texas Gladden too. Do you have maybe her cd called “Ballad legacy” on Rounder?

  3. sure do. comin’ up next, specially for you gadaya

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