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For the purposes of myth, the facts concerning Hobart Smith’s October 1963 stint in Chicago come up short. Mainly, they concern a rec room, a recorder placed on a coffee table, a monaural microphone, and hours and hours of tape. Nearly every old-timey player has a bio full of bullshit—crossroads, hard drinking, a tough woman kept in a fleabag hotel. But Hobart Smith’s legend involves no devil pacts nor brutal binges nor asshole behavior. Just stamina.
There were other gigs that stood out in Smith’s career—performing for Eleanor Roosevelt, playing at the Newport Folk Festival, being recorded by Alan Lomax. But none produced results as monumental as the tapes he made sitting in a wood-paneled room with amateur musicologist and fellow banjo player Fleming Brown. It’s the stuff of myth, of bootlegs—at the very least of exhaustive, breathless liner notes.
Having traveled from his home in Saltville, Va., for a college folk festival, the 66-year-old with the preacher haircut, funeral suit, and cracked face kept to an arduous ticktock of performances, tutorials, and informal gatherings for some 15 days. It was during this trip that the multi-instrumentalist recorded his first solo album. He played for TV cameras at the local public television station. He played for high-school students. And he played for Brown.
On the recordings that became In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes, Smith scratched blistering banjo riffs, bowed sad-as-hell teardrop notes on the fiddle, pounded country-ass piano rolls, and slid deep, slippery blues with a bottleneck. When the mood hit, he just sang—his words loose and ego-free, sometimes clouded with age; he could just as easily have been singing on a porch at sunset. The man still couldn’t be held down by that tape machine and microphone. On “Clog Dance With Guitar,” Smith—with the reels running—left the room to finger his acoustic and stomp out a jig for the rhythm. “I practically dance everything I play,” he once said.
By 1963, the folk revival had become an industry. Hungry scholars and players were fishing long-lost musicians from cotton fields and drunken stupors, plucking them out of obscurity, retirement, and long bitterness jags for a chance at a career. They shoved microphones in Dock Boggs’ face and marvelled as he sobered up telling his own stories. They were dealing with people who hadn’t gotten steady work in a long time. These were musicians who needed pay as much as payback—even if the money came by way of dorky college kids.
Smith’s early history was like many: log cabin, musical family, ballads and hymns. He’d come up buck-dancing, learning to play the pump organ before he could reach the seat. Square-dance gigs gradually gave way to the contest-and-festival circuit. His session with Lomax came in 1942. Then followed precious few more. (There was a notable album in 1948 with a sister, singer Texas Gladden.) He worked as a farmer and a painter and a butcher. At one point, Pete Seeger gave him a banjo, which Smith said was the first he’d owned in 25 years.
Brown’s recordings of Smith were initially intended as a teaching tool for the banjo seminars he ran, a sort of Art of Fugue for hicks. In the years that followed, he would occasionally share his tablatures and tapes with students and colleagues. At the time of his death, in 1984, he passed them on in the hopes that someday the rec-room recordings would become an album. It’s taken 21 years.
In tone, the tapes are comparable to Leadbelly’s last recordings—informal, chatty, and rough. As the tape flows, you’ll notice the homemade quality immediately: the mike placed too close to Smith’s banjo strings, the piano that could use a tuning, a child’s squeal, heels clipping the floor, and the in-between chatter of “Hobie” explaining where all the tunes and sounds came from.
On these 36 songs, Smith stands out most for his “banjer” picking. He’s a speedy beast with the instrument on “Buck Creek Girls,” combining staccato pings, slurs, and trilly high notes in a classic virtuoso turn. For the repetitive “Banging Breakdown,” he taps on the banjo’s drum for rhythm; for the plaintive “Railroad Bill,” he musters an assured performance despite not having played the tune for 25 years. (A traditional guitar version, much slower, follows, Smith’s vocals almost drowned out by the acoustic in places; he finishes the tune with a speedy passage, his feet tapping furiously note for note, strum for strum, registering pure joy.)
You can hear the swagger of rockabilly in Smith’s banjo in the minor-key “Wabash Blues.” Hell, rockabilly sounds almost courtly by comparison. The notes hit small and fast and hard, like the sound of raindrops smacking tin. With “I’ll Meet You When the Sun Goes Down,” Smith scatters notes all over the place as he sings, rough and barely audible: “If you don’t believe I’ll fight, follow me tonight/I’ll meet you when the sun goes down.” That’s it. And then he lets the notes rip from his banjo.
Just as easily, he picks up his fiddle and breaks out “Uncloudy Day.” His bow slowly saws at the strings, setting off sparks of rough notes and high cracks as he drones: “Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise…” It’s a stately hymn, one of only a few included on the album. “Wayfaring Stranger” is another, a song he had recorded with his daughters 20 years prior, his fiddle’s whine replacing the vocals on the familiar melody. (According to the liner notes, a number of other sacred songs recorded during these sessions were marred by technical problems.) This is Smith’s only recording of “Wayfaring Stranger,” a precious two minutes and 38 seconds.
There are plenty of other songs—and that rec-room piano just begging to be played. Smith attacks the piano big-handed, bent on galloping chords. The old keys are no match for Smith’s rapturous, happy syncopated style on his one-minute version of “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” He ends the tune with declarative pounding and a joyful “Yow!”
Smith just kept going—singing, dancing, playing the banjo and the fiddle and the piano and the harmonica, bringing forth any old tune in response to Brown’s gentle queries. He sang “I Feel So Good,” a blues he recalled Blind Lemon singing in Saltville, a cappella. And then he went back to banjer-picking. After a supper at Brown’s house one night, Smith tapped out “Old Joe Clark,” which he could play equally well in his father’s “slow rap” style—“unhurried,” loping down-picking—and the syncopated, rapid-fire “double-noting” technique of contemporary John Greer.
These rec-room sessions amounted to nine hours of tape, spanning the course of several days—a box set’s worth of material. The box set, of course, hasn’t materialized, and it may never; much has gone unreleased due to sound-quality issues. What is available to modern listeners strikes a bittersweet note. There’s still so much of Smith’s repertoire left untapped: In Sacred Trust doesn’t include recordings with his harmonica, nor several other instruments he had mastered over the years—mandolin, organ, accordion. Still, the range of recordings is wide. Smith himself seemed downright perplexed that his recall of even the oldest songs in his repertoire was so strong. Once, after playing “Wabash Blues” for Brown, he wondered aloud why it had come back to him. “Why?” he asked. “I don’t know why.”
But Smith knew that these sessions proved one thing: He shouldn’t have waited so long to commit that banjo to tape. At the final moments of the session, after the last number had ended, he became overwhelmed at the powers of his memory and the fact that his old fingers could still play pretty good. He mused that he should have recorded these songs much, much earlier. “It’s a pity,” he said, “I ain’t got all my stuff out when I was a young man.”CP