Sam Hinton, folk singer, songwriter, naturalist and San Diego civic treasure who delighted school children and folk-festival audiences for decades, has died. He was 92.
Hinton died Thursday at an assisted living facility in Albany in Northern California where, in failing health, he had moved two years ago. The cause of death was a series of old-age ailments including congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Leanne.
Possessed of a gentle, whimsical manner, and an enthusiasm for singing what he called “old songs for young people,” Hinton was one of the fathers of the folk-song movement that began in the 1930s and gained great popularity in the 1940s and 1950s.
Sam Hinton was born March 21, 1917, in Tulsa, Okla. In Oklahoma and later in Texas, he developed a lifelong passion for two things: reptiles (particularly snakes) and folk music.
The rural region of his youth was home to a grab bag of ethnic, social and racial groups -- Cajuns, African Americans, cowboys, recent European immigrants, and people from the Ozarks -- and Hinton was attracted to their music.
He delighted in telling how when he was 5, his mother, a gifted pianist, took him to a music store and bought him a harmonica. Before they left the store, the boy was playing a passable version of “Turkey in the Straw.”
By 8, he was entertaining people on his harmonica and a two-button accordion. “I was kind of a hard kid to raise,” Hinton is quoted on the website, www.samhinton.org. “Mama tried to divert me, sometimes. I wanted to catch snakes, and she thought it would be nicer for me to raise gladiolas.”
At 19, Hinton got an offer he couldn’t refuse: to join the Major Bowes traveling vaudeville show. He was attending Texas A&M, paying his bills by singing and also selling snake venom. Joining the traveling troupe, he toured 46 states and parts of Canada, singing and playing in front of audiences of all sizes.
He enrolled at UCLA, earned a degree in zoology in 1940, and married Leslie Forster, a violinist and singer. The marriage endured until her death in 2005.
In 1942 he became a director of the Desert Museum in Palm Springs. In 1943 he took a post doing war-related research at the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. The research involved helping the U.S. Navy find better ways to carry the fight to the enemy or, as Hinton later put it, “how to sink and not get sunk.”
Over the next five decades, Hinton held several jobs at the university, including director of the aquarium and director of the university’s outreach to local schools. He co-wrote two books, with Joel Hedgpeth, “Exploring Under the Sea” and “Common Seashore Animals of Southern California.”
He also wrote a nature column for the local newspaper, performed at schools and festivals, and made a series of recordings, some for the Library of Congress, including “Buffalo Boy and the Barnyard Song,” a collection of Anglo-Irish songs and ballads.
Unlike other folk singers, notably Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Hinton’s songs were not known for their biting political or social commentary. Still, he had a run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee with his song “Old Man Atom,” also called “Talking Atomic Blues,” which included the line, “peace in the world or the world in pieces.”
By his own reckoning, he knew more than 2,000 songs, many of which he had written.
In 1988 San Diego proclaimed a Sam Hinton Day and then-Mayor Maureen O’Connor praised him for bringing “pure joy and delight” to the city.
Hinton’s songs contained humor and often a gentle admonition to children and others to be kind to others and to the environment around them. “Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts” is a playful way of reminding the young what happens when they are stingy with others.
“Whoever shall have some good peanuts
And giveth his neighbor none
Then he can’t have any of my good peanuts
When his good peanuts are gone
Oh won’t it be joyful, joyful, joyful
Oh won’t it be joyful
When his good peanuts are gone.”
Besides his daughter, Leanne of Berkeley, Hinton is survived by his son, Matthew of Trinidad, Calif.; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
A memorial service is planned for San Diego.