Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Saltville Virginia, Hobart Smith
Good For: Summer days, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, music history essays
Standout Tracks: “Meet Me in Rose Time, Rosie”, “John Greer’s Tune,” “Cuckoo Bird”
An obscure gem among Folk-Legacy Records’ catalog of folk music, Saltville, Virginia is a display of raw, authentic virtuosity. Contained within is a set of American folk tunes performed by a man as salt of the earth as they come. Raised in an “old log house,” Hobart Smith began playing “old-timey rappin’ style” banjo at the age of seven when his dad bought him a Sears-Roebuck banjo. Later, he picked up guitar and fiddle as well, and his excessive skill on all three instruments is well displayed on Saltville.
Smith’s musical development didn’t end with his father, though. Rather, he assimilated the styles and nuances of musicians passing through or growing up in Saltville. For instance, Smith, in an interview with Folk-Legacy’s George Armstrong, describes the influence another banjoist, John Greer, had on him in his youth. Greer, says Smith, “went from thumb string to bottom, double-notin’.” Greer, the best man Smith had “ever heard on the banjer” drew him away from his father’s simpler style of playing. Similarly influential was blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson, who paid a visit to Saltville during Smith’s adolescence. Smith “watched his fingers and got the music” in his head, then he’d thumb around till he matched the sound. Smith’s integration of new techniques, including those of Black musicians, in the context of his extremely raw and grass roots upbringing as a farmer, butcher and paternally trained musician is perhaps emblematic of America’s musical history as a whole. Musicians like Smith, willing to adapt to the sounds which they rightfully saw as superseding the traditions they were trained in, were those who pushed those traditions forward.
The mixture of influences which form Smith’s style can be heard on Saltville Virginia. The album is loaded up with traditional tunes performed with precision. The title of “Peg and Awl” is a mutation of “pegging awl,” and the song itself is a lamentation of automation. It features Smith on fiddle with some dulcimer backing. “Meet Me in Rose Time, Rosie” is an “old time love song.” and displays Smith’s skill on the guitar, and is the best display of his warm Appalachian drawl. “John Greer’s Tune” steps far away from most of his other banjo tunes, with a pretty unusual, very un-Appalachian melody and drumming. It’s a short, remorseful and nostalgic tune that clearly displays Smith’s willingness to step outside the boundaries of southwestern Virginia’s musical legacy. “Cuckoo Bird” is the most interesting song on the album. Smith’s voice is backed in counterpoint by his banjo, which tears subtly into rhythmic complexities as the song burns itself out.
Overall, Saltville, Virginia is a wonderful document of American music at a turning point. Smith himself died just a year after the album’s release. When he was born in 1897, music in America was stratified, and musicians like Hobart were entertainers more so than artists. By the end of his life, musicians like Smith had started American folk on its collision course with mainstream culture. People ought to remember the incredible innovation and skill of musicians like Hobart Smith: Musicians who were raised in log cabins and yet had the vision innovate, grow and, in Smith’s case, have their work documented for posterity. With a little knowledge of the context and history of the songs and performer, Saltville Virginia is a deeply rewarding and enlightening experience.