by Stephen Wade
Hobart Smith (1897-1965) was one of America’s greatest traditional musicians. Largely because he didn’t have a commercial recording career, though, he’s remained over the years something of a revered secret. A few months before these tapes came to be made, Bill Monroe remarked, “Hobart Smith was a first-class musician and showman, all right. Played by himself. Didn’t carry a band. Played all the string instruments, too, and was a mighty fine buckdancer. He was a good guitar bluesman, a great old-time fiddler, and I’d have to say, he was the best old-time banjo picker I ever heard.” It was a generous assessment coming from a figure not much known for praising other musicians, but the father of bluegrass knew what he was talking about.
In October 1963, in a wood-paneled recreation room on the outskirts of Chicago, over a period of four or five days, Hobart Smith sat across a coffee table from fellow banjo player Fleming Brown, who taped hours of his repertory. The music was as diverse as the instruments Hobart played: banjo, fiddle, guitar, and piano, all the while accompanied by his percussive dance steps. As Fleming operated the tape recorder, Hobart played everything from blues to hoedowns, dance tunes to showpieces, hymns to love songs.
Sometimes the two musicians played together. Other times, they put down their instruments, and as Fleming listened, Hobart talked with poetic animation about the music he had grown up with. At one point he swore, “I’m giving you my hand to God, I’ve never played that tune in 25 years.”
Hobart was recalling music from the 19th century, pieces that musicians he had known, both black and white, played before the advent of recorded sound. As he unfolded his tunes with elaborations never before documented, he said, “I play the banjo for everything that’s in it.”
By the week’s end the two men knew they had gathered something extraordinary. In the collegiality of Fleming Brown’s home, in the kinship he found with this fellow musician, Hobart had drawn upon the oldest elements of his style to reveal an unprecedented access to Southern folk music that arose between the Civil War and the early 20th century. Much of what Hobart played for Fleming he had either never recorded elsewhere or he played on different instruments than the versions heard on previous recordings. But their hopes for the tapes’ release lay dormant. Hobart died not long after the taping, and Fleming (1926-1984) drew from them in the ensuing years largely as a teaching resource. Shortly before his own death, Fleming gave me these tapes (as well as the banjo on which Hobart played them) with the hope they would someday be issued. (more…)