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Caroline Gnagy

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HINTON, SAMUEL DUFFIE (1917–2009). Folk singer, songwriter, author, multi-instrumentalist, educator, illustrator, and marine biologist, Sam Hinton was born on March 31, 1917, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Allan Francis Hinton and Nell Duffie Hinton (both of Texas). At an early age Hinton showed a proclivity for music. He learned to sing and harmonize with his family as a little boy in Tulsa and was proficient with the harmonica and accordion by the age of ten. Hinton's mother had been a star student and piano soloist at North Texas Female College and Conservatory of Music years before and had a great influence on the introduction of music to her children.

The Hinton family moved to Crockett, Texas, in 1929. At this time, twelve-year-old Sam Hinton began collecting folk songs in earnest, beginning with those from forebears such as his great-grandfather, Isham Bailey Hardy (a celebrated ventriloquist and one-time mayor of Gatesville, Texas). Hinton also collected songs from a myriad of local residents, both black and white.

A self-professed “loner,” Hinton also spent much of his time in the rural areas surrounding Crockett, where he studied the local flora and fauna, and showed a particular fascination with the study and capture of regional reptiles. Around this time he stated a determination to pursue, equally and to the fullest, his two loves in life: zoology and music. Hinton achieved a great deal of success with both in his lifetime, which he frequently attributed to the wealth of cultural and biological resources that Texas offered him in his formative years.

In his new home of Crockett, young Hinton made a point to acquaint himself with people who could provide him with the knowledge he desired for both pursuits. By the time he graduated from Crockett High School in 1934, Hinton was a regular correspondent with nationally-renowned research scientists and wrote numerous letters containing inquiries and discussion topics regarding regional Texas wildlife.

This correspondence led in turn to Hinton becoming a resource for a number of scientific researchers nationwide; providing them with scientific drawings, journals, and specimens of the animals that he encountered during his rural forays. One such researcher was Dr. Doris F. Cochran of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., who proved instrumental as a mentor for Hinton during his early years working in the scientific field. Hinton carefully nurtured these relationships even as he worked typical Depression-era jobs (such as building Texas highways) for young men of his age.

Hinton often stated that the melting pot of Texas communities such as Cajun, Mexican, German, Anglo and African-American, generated an immeasurable influence on American music. After he entered college at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) in 1934, Hinton continued to collect songs and build an ever-increasing repertoire of folk music. He also learned to play the guitar during this period in order to best accompany himself while singing. His first public performance as a bona fide “folk singer” (Hinton has been identified as one of the earliest billed as such) was in 1935 at the invitation of notable Texas historian J. Frank Dobie, who requested that Hinton conduct a lecture-recital featuring East Texas folk music for a meeting of the Texas Folklore Society at the University of Texas in Austin. He began a family band called the Texas Trio with his younger sisters, Ann and Nell; they performed frequently for local venues and radio shows.

In 1936 Hinton's father was offered a job as a civil engineer in Washington, D.C., and prepared to move his family from Texas to the East Coast. At this time, Sam Hinton decided to leave Texas A&M and accompany his family. Once there, Hinton began actively pursuing professional status for both his musical and scientific career. Hinton also assisted Dr. Cochran part-time at the Smithsonian and did scientific illustrations and small odd jobs while he pursued full-time employment. During this period he began to spend time at the Library of Congress, where he eventually met legendary folklore and music historian John Avery Lomax and Lomax's son, Alan Lomax (with whom Hinton would remain lifelong friends). Hinton stated that in 1937, Alan Lomax invited him to record a collection of “Texas folk songs” for the Library of Congress although life changes prohibited him from fulfilling this request until the year 1947.

The full-time employment that Hinton eventually landed was not in the scientific field but rather in the musical field. In 1937 the Texas Trio performed on the air for the NewYork-based radio program Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour and was offered a paid spot on the Major Bowes Transcontinental tours. Hinton's younger sisters were deemed too young to go on the road, but Hinton soon joined the traveling vaudeville revue as “Texas Sam Hinton,” a solo “Folksinger and Novelty Instrumentalist.”

Hinton traveled extensively throughout the United States with different variations of the Major Bowes touring unit (one of the last of the vaudeville era). During this time he expanded exponentially his musical knowledge, instrumentation and repertoire, as well as his scientific studies (albeit in an “unofficial” capacity). When his father's employer had relocated his family to Glendale, California, Hinton moved his home base to their new abode; he remained in California for the duration of his life.

In the late 1930s Hinton gradually eased out of the Major Bowes tours and resumed his collegiate studies; however he continued to perform music, both solo and with his sisters. He was eventually accepted into UCLA, where he met Leslie Forster, a classically-trained musician and vocalist, and they married on September 8, 1940. His wife made innumerable contributions to Hinton's musical legacy; they remained together until her death in 2005.

In 1940 while still in college, Hinton performed in a Los Angeles-based stage revue called Meet the People, which later evolved to the Broadway circuit. He graduated from UCLA in 1941 and worked as a riveter with the Lockheed Corporation until he was hired as director of the Desert Museum in Palm Springs (1941–44). In 1944 the family moved to San Diego after Hinton accepted employment with the University of California Division of War Research (UCDWR) as an editor and illustrator for their promotional and training materials.

In 1946 Hinton accepted a position as curator of the Aquarium-Museum for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where he remained for nearly twenty years. As curator and later as director, Hinton developed into a respected marine biologist, authoring several books on marine wildlife of Southern California as well as authoring and illustrating a weekly column called “The Ocean World,” which appeared in the San Diego Union from 1958 to 1986.

Hinton continued to record music and play festivals for the next several decades while simultaneously maintaining a lengthy and successful career in the scientific world. In 1947 while in Washington, D.C., on a business trip for Scripps, Hinton returned to the Library of Congress and recorded for their archives (as promised) a collection of fifty-four folk songs, forty-six of which were released more than fifty years later on CD as Sam Hinton: The Library of Congress Recordings, March 25, 1947 (Bear Family Records, 1999). With a few exceptions, this collection consists of primarily folk songs gathered by Hinton when he was living in Texas in the 1930s.

Hinton's first recorded release in 1950 was an attention-grabbing version of the controversial “Old Man Atom” (or “Talking Atomic Blues”), a vaguely left-leaning satirical song about the potential disasters of nuclear warfare. This song was recorded not only by Hinton but many others, causing for most of them an official inquiry and questioning “under oath” by the House of Un-American Activities Committee; the record was later pulled entirely from distribution in the U.S. Hinton's role in the controversy surrounding “Old Man Atom” did not significantly affect his career. For the next several decades, he continued to release a number of full-length folk music albums for adults and children alike.

Hinton was already considered a folk music stalwart when he began performing for college-age audiences at the beginning of the folk music insurgence of the 1960s, and he is credited with influencing dozens of budding folk singers. He performed every year for ten years of the Berkeley Music Festival from its inception in 1958 and worked closely with Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and other soon-to-be household names on this festival. He later played in front of more than 15,000 fans at the culturally pivotal 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

Hinton founded the San Diego Folk Song Society in 1957, with the First Annual San Diego Folk Heritage Festival held in 1966. The popular folk festival was permanently renamed the Sam Hinton Folk Heritage Festival on May 11, 2002, in honor of his musical legacy. Hinton retired in 1980 and devoted all of his time to music. In 1987 in recognition of his contributions to the community for both his scientific and musical contributions, March 7 was declared “Sam Hinton Day” by San Diego city officials.

What is widely accepted as Hinton's final public performance occurred at the San Diego Folk Festival on May 11, 2002. In 2006, after the death of his wife Leslie, Hinton moved from his longtime home in La Jolla, California, to the Berkeley area, to be near his two children. He remained there until his death on September 10, 2009.


Ross Altman, “Sam Hinton: The Road Not Taken, An Appreciation,” Folkworks.org (http://www.folkworks.org/feature-articles/118/36169-sam-hinton-the-road-not-taken), accessed November 7, 2010. Melissa Block (Host) and Leanne Hinton (Guest), “Folksinger Sam Hinton Remembered,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio transcript with audio link, September 14, 2009 (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112825242), accessed June 1, 2010. Sam Hinton Papers, 1937–2006, Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego. Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2009. Adam Miller, “A Brief Biography of Sam Hinton,” The Sam Hinton Website (http://www.samhinton.org/bio.html), accessed November 4, 2015. Adam Miller, Liner notes, Sam Hinton: The Library of Congress Recordings, March 25, 1947 (Bear Family Records BCD 16383 AH. Hambergen, Germany, 1999). San Diego Union-Tribune, September 16, 2009.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Caroline Gnagy, "HINTON, SAMUEL DUFFIE," accessed August 07, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fhi75.

Uploaded on September 15, 2014. Modified on November 4, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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