STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When Hobart Smith was a young man, he spent a lot of time listening. He was often listening to much older people who taught him the songs they knew. By the time that Smith became an old man, he was a living link to music a it was heard even before the Civil War, and thanks to a series of recordings at the end of his life, we now have a chance to travel back in time with him.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

INSKEEP: Smith is considered one of this country's greatest traditional musicians, because he could play those songs on almost anything--guitar, piano, fiddle, banjo.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

INSKEEP: Decades after they were recorded in 1963, these tapes have been released on CD. The Smithsonian Folkways release is called "In Sacred Trust." Just as the songs were passed on to Hobart Smith, the recordings were passed on to a musician named Stephen Wade, who came to our studios to talk and to listen.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

INSKEEP: Hobart Smith recorded these into a microphone that was set up by a man named Fleming Brown...

Mr. STEPHEN WADE (Musician): That's right.

INSKEEP: ...who then became your teacher years later.

Mr. WADE: A few years later, that's right.

INSKEEP: And he must have just spent hours and hours telling you about these recording sessions.

Mr. WADE: Oh, yeah. He told everybody about this. This was a very meaningful moment in Fleming's life. And it turns out that Fleming actually started playing the banjo because of hearing Hobart on a record, you know, in 1948. So here he's--now he's friends with him and he's staying with him. And then Hobart is so comfortable with Fleming as a colleague, as a fellow player, that he's recalling all kinds of things he hadn't played in a quarter of a century.

(Soundbite of fiddle music)

INSKEEP: Why was this recording being made at the end of Hobart Smith's life?

Mr. WADE: Well, Fleming was a teacher and a lot of the time that was spent here was--this is really for instructional purposes. Hobart would play the tunes and then he'd slow them down. And Fleming would then make transcriptions from that bring to his classes. So originally it was for instruction, for passing it on. And then by the end of the week, they kind of figured maybe this is a record. But then Hobart got real sick and he died. This is October '63; he died in January, '65, and just the energy for that just went away. And then before he died, Fleming game me all the tapes and really, he wanted something done with them.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a track from this recording. It's called "Clog Dance With Guitar," and you can hear Hobart Smith's feet very clearly, moving as he played.

(Soundbite of "Clog Dance With Guitar")

INSKEEP: He sounds like he's dribbling a basketball.

Mr. WADE: That's a nice metaphor. It does sound like dribbling a basketball.

INSKEEP: What was he doing?

Mr. WADE: Well, he was standing there dancing and playing the guitar. I mean, he was clog dancing with it, and he'd already had, you know, several heart attacks at that point. Just had an irrepressible energy and...

INSKEEP: You get a sense of somebody who really loved to play and sing.

Mr. WADE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, and it was a whole world of music that he played. I mean, it was church songs and love songs and old ballads and blues, the old-time reels.

INSKEEP: And sometimes the same song on different instruments.

Mr. WADE: Oh, yeah. That's what he did. He would vary them. He could play--he said about his piano-playing, he could play a whole square dance on the piano, and he would, you know, so all the tunes you just normally associate of course with banjo he could also do on the--and he played the piano very much like a banjo.

(Soundbite of piano music)

INSKEEP: How do you know when you're hearing Hobart Smith's music? Is--and I don't mean technically what you hear, but I mean, is there a feeling that you associate with his music?

Mr. WADE: Well, there is a drive that's entirely identifiable with him. You do know his music stylistically when you hear it. But he's also offering a window here into music before the advent of recorded sound. He grandfathers both played fiddle, and they also learned fiddle from an ex-slave named Jim Spencer. He sought out players of both races all the time.

INSKEEP: I'd like to play a piece of tape, if I can, from this recording, and it's the sound of Hobart Smith talking about the way that he would learn to play by listening to other people and trying to pick up exactly what he heard from old men.

Mr. HOBART SMITH (Musician): And I'd hear a good fiddle tune or a good banjo piece, and I'd commence whistling. And I'd whistle that till my mouth got so tired and I'd go home. To keep it on my mind, I'd go pretty fast, and I'd go home and I'd whistle all the way into the holler on the mountain. And then my banjo'd be hanging on the wall, and sometimes that's just where it was at and I'd come in, whistle right loud and the banjo'd answer me on the wall, you know, that sound. I'd go and get her. I kept that right in my mind. And I'd found that tune on them strings before I'd quit. I never stopped till I found it, because I loved it. I loved it and I just went for it.

INSKEEP: Why is this recording called "In Sacred Trust"?

Mr. WADE: Well, it's not just these rolls of tape that were left to me, although that was certainly part of it. I thought of it in relation to the trust that Hobart and Fleming had with each other, that emerges throughout their time together. And then what Hobart is carrying from the players before him. I mean, the only way he could retain this music is through his memory and his desire that he's talking about, about finding the notes on the fingerboard and whistling and just that determination. So it's not just about ancestries, it's continuities.

INSKEEP: The musician was Hobart Smith; he was recorded by Fleming Brown. The recordings have ended up in the hands of Stephen Wade, and now the public.

Mr. Wade, thanks very much.

Mr. WADE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Stephen Wade's account of the story behind these recordings, plus songs from "In Sacred Trust," are at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

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