Sam's great-grandfather, Isham Bailey Hardy (1824-1905) was a successful magician, puppeteer and ventriloquist who had his own dog and pony show. Although he died a decade before Sam's birth, many of the songs in Sam's repertoire came to him from hisgreat-grandfather, Isham, through Sam's mother, Nell Duffie Hinton (1889-1978). She was a gifted musician who played both ragtime and classical piano, and taught piano and elocution.
Sam began performing in public at an early age, playing the button accordion, harmonica and pennywhistle. He spent much of his early boyhood with his mother's parents in Beaumont, Texas. When he was eight or nine years old he tookhis harmonica and entered an amateur contest at the Strand Theater in Tulsa, Oklahoma and won two dollars.
Very early in childhood Sam displayed a natural predisposition towards natural history. His interest in animals (especially snakes) has continued throughout his life. "I was going to be an African Explorer, and bring home animals and things," Sam recalls, "I was kind of a hard kid toraise. Mama tried to divert me, sometimes. I wanted to catch snakes and she thought it would be nicer to raise gladiolas. I've always said my early life was divided into three periods: when Mom would let me take little snakes home, when Mom would let me take big snakes, and finally, when she gave sort of tacit permission to bring poisonous snakes home, that didn't happen until we were in Crockett. Shealways laughed and said I was a throwback to her grandpa, Isham Hardy!"
Sam in make-up as The Folksinger in the San Diego Little Theater Association's production of "Dark of the Moon." Serra Museum, Balboa Park, California, 1950
When he was twelve Sam's family moved to Crockett, a small East Texas town. This area was rich in wildlife; the study of which, along with folk music, has been thedominant force in Sam's life. East Texas is also rich in cultural diversity, and he grew up hearing music in the traditions of African America, the White South, the Cajun French, the American West, and the Anglo-Celtic mountain tradition of settler's from the Ozarks.
Sam's search for new and different snakes led him into Crockett's rural black community, where Sam learned songs and hollers fromlocal sharecroppers. Crockett had a large black community, and the local black church was another source of songs for young Sam.
In 1934 he got his first guitar. Sam lightly fingerpicks the guitar in a syncopated style, with his fingertips, while achieving a backbeat strum with the back of his middle fingernail. According to Sam, "My mother loved to play ragtime, one of my favorite pieces wasScott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." That gave me the feeling, I think, for syncopation, but I didn't know that at the time. I think what I sensed in ragtime was that the left hand was doing a pretty steady beat, and the right hand was playing a lot of offbeat things. And I think that carried over into my voice as one part and the guitar as another, doing some offbeat things with one or the other."Sam worked his way through college as a musician, sign-painter, calligrapher, scientific illustrator, and supplier of snake venom to the Sharp and Dohm pharmaceutical firm in Pennsylvania. In 1935, while studying zoology at Texas A&M, he was invited by folklorist J. Frank Dobie to give his first performance as a folksinger; a lecture-recital of East Texas Folk Songs for the Texas Folklore Society...