Hobart Smith

Hobart Smith, b. May 10, 1897 in Smyth County, VA, d. January 11, 1965 in Saltville, VA, American old-time musician, active c. 1942–1965. He was most notable for his appearance with his sister, Texas Gladden, on a series of Library of Congress recordings in the 1940s and his later appearances at various festivals during the folk music revival of the 1960s. Smith is often remembered for his virtuosic performances on the banjo, and had also mastered various other instruments, including the fiddle, guitar, piano, harmonica, accordion, and organ.

Hobart Smith was a banjo virtuoso who had mastered both the "frailing" or "clawhammer" style taught to him by his father and the "double-noting" style, which was taught to him by John Greer and was heavily rooted in the instrument's African-American tradition. His notable banjo recordings include Cuckoo Bird and "Banging Breakdown" (the latter being a favorite at festivals), both of which he learned from neighbor and bandmate John Greer, and "Old Joe Clark" and "John Henry", both of which he learned from his father. While Smith was a Baptist, most of his religious recordings are from the Holiness tradition, since Baptists at the time frowned upon instrumental music. Smith learned "Heaven's Airplane"— recorded in 1963— from a Holiness preacher.

Hobart Smith was born near Saltville, Virginia in 1897, the oldest son of eight children born to Louvine and Alexander King Smith. Hobart believed the ballad-singing tradition in his family dated back at least seven generations to when the Smiths immigrated from England. Both of Hobart's grandfathers were fiddle players, and his parents were banjo players. When Alan Lomax traveled to Saltville to record Hobart in 1942, he also recorded Hobart's father playing a version of "Old Joe Clark". Hobart recalled his family staying up late at night singing hymns and ballads around the fireplace in their home just outside Saltville. Hobart's parents bought him his first banjo when was seven, and he learned piano by playing at church revivals in the area. In 1911, an African-American fiddle player named Jim Spencer began lodging at the Smith house, and taught Hobart how to play the fiddle. Impressed with the African-American style, Hobart and his cousin, John Galliher, began sneaking over to the segregated side of Saltville to hear black musicians. In later interviews, both claimed to have heard an itinerant guitarist named "Blind Lemon Jefferson" (modern researchers doubt this was the legendary Texas bluesman, however), who inspired Smith to purchase a guitar and learn to play that instrument as well. Around the same time, a neighbor of Smith's named John Greer taught Smith a "double-noting" banjo style he had learned from African-American musicians, which Smith later used to complement the frailing style taught to him by his father. Around 1915, Smith formed a string band and began performing at minstrel shows and medicine shows, and over subsequent years performed at venues around western Virginia, especially in the Abingdon area and at Emory & Henry College. In 1936, Smith and his sister, Texas Gladden, delivered a memorable performance at the White Top Folk Festival in southwestern Virginia. The performance impressed Eleanor Roosevelt, who was in attendance, and two years later she invited Smith and Gladden to perform at the White House. These early appearances brought them to the attention of various folklorists and musicologists, including Alan Lomax, who at the time was working for the U.S. Library of Congress. In 1942, Smith recorded 40 tracks for Lomax at Saltville, among them "Banging Breakdown", Cuckoo Bird, "Wayfaring Stranger", and "Sourwood Mountain". Lomax introduced Smith to Moses Asch, and in 1946 Smith traveled to New York to record for Asch's Disc label. Both Lomax and Asch continued to record Smith over the years, sometimes as a soloist, and sometimes performing duets with his sister or other singers such as Almeda Riddle and Bessie Jones. Smith experienced a resurgence during the folk music revival of the 1960s. He made numerous appearances at folk festivals around the United States, most notably at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. He played in several different bands with other noted musicians, including Clarence Ashley, whom he had met at a medicine show in the 1930s. In October 1963, Smith participated in two notable recording sessions, both in Chicago. The first was conducted by Chicago radio station WFMT program director, Norm Pellegrini, which consisted of material released on the Folk-Legacy label.  A second, less formal session was conducted by folk music teacher Fleming Brown at Brown's home, parts of which were released in 2005 by Smithsonian Folkways. At both recordings, Smith was already feeling the painful effects of a heart embolism that would take his life on January 11, 1965.

Hobart Smith Biography by Matt Fink

One of the most sadly overlooked masters of Appalachian folk music, Hobart Smith may not be widely known outside of those who happened to either see him at a '60s folk festival or the nascent folkies who were directly influenced by his driving, energetic banjo and guitar styles, but he arguably remains one of the most virtuosic performers his genre and era produced. Known as a quiet man, he clearly enjoyed the spotlight, transforming into a foot-stomping showman with rousing tunes and carefully embellished tales that identified him as the genuine article for a generation of musicians obsessed with such a cultural pedigree. A precise player of his own intricate arrangements of traditional old-timey tunes, Smith was an amazingly eclectic artist. Whether turning out deeply soulful country-blues on guitar, channeling Earl Scruggs-like energy on complexly nuanced banjo tunes, diving into hauntingly rhythmic fiddle tunes, or lightening the mood with jaunty piano tunes, his music is always stamped with an ear for fluid melody and hypnotic rhythms.

Born in 1897 in Saltville, VA, Smith was immersed in the authentic Appalachian musical culture, sharing a musical tradition seven generations old by the time he arrived. As such, Smith's father had him playing the banjo by the age of seven, the guitar by the age of 14, and the fiddle, mandolin, piano, and organ within a few years. By 1915, he was gaining employment on the minstrel show circuit and had started his own string band to play at a variety of social functions from auctions to prison camps. At an indeterminate point, the influence of the blues crept into Smith's musical vernacular, coloring his rendering of traditional tunes forever thereafter. By the time he befriended Clarence Ashley in 1918 (whom he greatly respected as a musician and was probably influenced by on some level), he was nearly earning a living as a musician, although he would still have to find employment as a farmer, wagoner, house painter, and butcher. By 1936, Smith had begun to play the day's commercial popular music and had gained such regional renown that he and his sister, Texas Gladden, were invited to play before Eleanor Roosevelt at the prestigious White Top Festival in Southwest Virginia, making such an impression on the first lady that the two would be invited to perform at the White House.

In 1942, Smith recorded 40 tracks for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress, resulting in a set of English ballads; banjo, fiddle, and guitar pieces; and Virginia murder ballads, not to mention a relationship with Lomax that would prove beneficial in the coming years. Eventually, Lomax would introduce him to Moses Asch, resulting in the recording of a soon out of print album for Asch's pre-Folkways disc label. Even so, the album went on to become quite influential on the burgeoning folk revival scene in New York City and Smith was convinced to focus solely on his traditional repertoire. As the years wore on, Lomax continued to record Smith, introduce him to folk festivals, and conduct extensive interviews to present the depth of his musical legacy. As artists such as the New Lost City Ramblers' Tom Paley, John Cohen, and Mike Seeger, as well as Jody Stecher, Hank Bradley, and Fleming Brown took in his performances during the folk festival boom of the 1960s, Smith was finally embraced as the musical genius he was and would again enter the recording studio for Folk Legacy that fully indulged his love of odd and obscure traditional tunes. Still, by the time Smith seemed on the verge of capitalizing on his unique talents, his health began to fail him. In 1965, his status as a true giant of traditional music growing with each performance, he passed away without fully benefiting from his prodigious talents. Although his legacy has been carried on by those his music touched in his lifetime, renewed interest in Hobart Smith's music resulted in the excellent Blue Ridge Legacy release in 2001.