Uncle Sam’s Gift

This post has nothing to do with horses and everything to do with joy. It’s a tribute to my great uncle Sam Hinton, a folk singer and marine biologist who brought joy to multitudes during his 92 years of life. His legacy lives on through the annual Sam Hinton Folk Festival in San Diego.

Folksinger and biologist Sam Hinton

Folk singer and biologist Sam Hinton

I’ve been thinking about Uncle Sam during these hot July days, remembering him playing his guitar and singing on the deck of our summer cabin in Indiana. It was the mid-1970s, and he had come to Crawfordsville to perform a community concert and visit our family. He’d been a kindly quasi-big brother to my mother, who raised us on his classic Folkways album, Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts. She often sang us to sleep with “Old Boastun Was Dead”—not standard lullaby fare for most children, but a memorable way to drift off.

I wish I could put that long-ago summer evening in a glass jar and keep it on my windowsill. But—like fireflies and guitar strums—its beauty lies in its ephemerality. Uncle Sam’s voice, liquid, warm, with a hint of mischief, flowed in time with the nearby creek. He good-naturedly honored requests for our favorites—“Michael Finnigan,” “The Frog Song,” “The Green Grass Growing All Around”—and startled my little sister with an unexpected BOO! in “Little Old Woman All Skin and Bone.”

But what I remember most is sitting next to Uncle Sam on the cabin deck before he began singing. I looked out and saw a brownish creek and woods. He pointed to a log and said, “Look, there’s a box turtle.” Then he showed me a downy woodpecker high in a tree and a northern water snake slithering against the current. It was an early lesson in awareness.

My other enduring memory comes from a childhood trip to California. We stopped to visit Uncle Sam, who treated us to a concert in his kitchen. He played several instruments simultaneously while juggling eggs. That’s how I remember it, anyway. I don’t recall whether he dropped an egg. It doesn’t matter, really. The point he was making is to approach life with a sense of adventure and silliness. And timing.

The album that shaped my childhood

The album that shaped my childhood

A few years ago Smithsonian Folkways issued DVDs and downloads of Uncle Sam’s albums, making his music accessible for rising generations as well as old fans like myself. I may currently be the only person in Greensboro, North Carolina, loudly singing “The Barnyard Song” in my car, but I hope you’ll join me.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Visit the Sam Hinton website.

Listen to a 2009 NPR “All Things Considered” interview with Sam’s daughter, Leanne Hinton.

Watch Sam Hinton perform “The Barnyard Song” at a 1988 children’s concert.

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3 thoughts on “Uncle Sam’s Gift

  1. Ah Mary

    What a lovely and loving (!) prose-song to your great uncle Sam.

    What child would not have loved this man? Watched the video of the barnyard song-oh the faces of the children: entranced and enchanting!

    And “fireflies and guitar strums” — pretty enchanting too . . .

    Thanks

    Xoxox

    j

    _____

  2. Yes, he personified warmth–and had an uncanny ability to make barnyard animal sounds. I feel so lucky to have known him. Thanks for taking the time to watch/listen to him sing.

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