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An Interview With Folk Singer Sam Hinton

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Folk singer Sam Hinton is an amazing man and the fact his children's album, Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts, originally issued by Folkways in 1964, has been reissued by Smithsonian Folksway Recordings supports this belief.  

The album includes "Old Dan Tucker" and "Frog Went Courting," both of which have been covered by Bruce Springsteen and the latter of which has also been covered by Bob Dylan. Besides his role as a beloved folk singer, guitarist, and harmonica player, Hinton had a career as a marine biologist, serving as director of the University of California's Aquarium Museum at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, penning three books on the subject and teaching various age groups.

Hinton has a repertoire of over 5,000 songs, many of which draw on his Oklahoma and Texas origins.  

Hinton turns 90 in May.

What is it like to have an album of yours from 1964 reissued?

I am very pleased that Folkways released it. I didn’t know about it in advance but I was happy.

Do you still sing regularly?

I don’t sing in public at all. I have lost some of my ability to play guitar. I’ve become completely mute. Still love listening to music, other folk singers mostly, John McCutcheon in particular.

Was it hard to learn to sing some of those songs like "Frog Went Courting"? They sound like tough tongue twisters.

Nothing was hard about it — all very easy and wonderful to do. I played for my kids and they grew up knowing these songs.

What was it you most liked about singing children's music?

I liked the thought of an audience for these songs. I am very pleased that the songs were not dying and I was carrying on the folk tradition; these songs are tried and true – people have been singing them for hundreds of years. I think that is why parents and children today still want to sing these songs. They want to repeat the enjoyment I had – enjoyment in the songs themselves, not in the way I performed them.

Do you really know 5,000 songs?

Yes, it was at least several thousand that I learned. I made a list of songs I know.

What do you think of the state of folk music today?

I don’t think much about it. I do like John McCutcheon very much and there are several others I enjoy. Still very much like what Pete Seeger does. This is one of the nice things about being a folk singer, lots of friends who are folk singers.

Would you tell me about the songs?

“Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts" – I heard about this song from another folk singer. The great thing of about folk music is that it allows you to make changes, to make a song suit whatever I want to do with it. It’s important to me to know that a song has been around a long time for children to sing. Some of the songs deal with darker issues.

They represent a true representation of life, with its ups and downs. I feel like I’m participating in something that has been going on for years and years and years. When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to learn every song in the world – both folk and classical (my mother was a classical pianist).

I found I couldn’t learn them all, but I learned to pick and choose. I realized when I was in college (Texas A&M – zoology major) that there were many more songs than my memory encompassed. I started singing the songs I knew something appealed to me about these songs – something told me “this is a good one to work on” – I made each one my own by changing them a little bit.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • A nice article about a little-known American treasure. Thanks, Scott!

  • scott butki

    You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it.

  • Laura

    Thanks for a great interview (I wish it were longer). My brother and I had “Good Peanuts” when we were growing up and literally wore the record out. Sam has been an icon in science, music and the humanities and has recorded our folk past to preserve for the future. I hope they thow him the best birthday bash ever in May!

  • Betsy Livingstone

    A couple of questions: how did you do the interview if Sam is completely mute? I’m guessing this means he’s had a stroke? Does he email, was this an online interview? How is he doing now? Is his birthday really in May or was it March 31 as some other sites have said? I love Sam. My kids grew up with Good Peanuts & know all the words to all the songs. We used to go see him whenever he played in Berkeley. What a great guy and superb musician and storyteller. He’s given us the enormous gift of our folk musical heritage, keeping it alive especially for the kids.

  • Scott Butki

    The interview was done via email with a publicist asking Sam the questions and writing down his answers.
    Sam is not mute.
    Thanks for your interest.

    The bio page has his birthdate as March. I’d trust this, as Sam approved all of this info.