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Jim Smoak: A "Hidden Figure" of American Banjo Music

A collection and oral history of 3-finger style bluegrass banjo player Jim Smoak by 2013 Appalachian Sound Archive Fellow Joe O'Connell.

SC & Learning to Play

Growing Up & Traveling


Early Entertainment

Joe:  I think today maybe I’ll ask you some questions about your upbringing in South Carolina.  Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?

Jim:  Well, I grew up in the country, and it was about 50 miles west of Charleston, South Carolina.  You wouldn’t think too many hillbilly banjo players came from that area.  But anyway, that part of the country is called the low country.  It was a farm.  I had a brother and a sister.  My dad—we grew cotton.  And naturally we grew corn.  And had chickens.  We had the chickens for the eggs.  Big chicken houses.  And, so, that was our chores after school, was to come home and feed the chickens.  Of course we had hogs in the pen.  But living in the country, I lived only—well, when I was just born, three years old, my grandfather Smoak lived next door.  He married a widow next door on the next farm over.

Joe:  What town was this in?

Jim:  Well, the town—the county seat is Walterboro, but my mailing address was Round O.  R-O-U-N-D-Capital O.  And, so anyway, all that is about 12 miles out of Walterboro.  And then my grandfather on my mother’s side—grandfather and grandmother—they lived about a mile and a half away.  So, it was just cousins and uncles and aunts—basically lived in that whole area right there.  I had one uncle that lived in Florence because he was a railroad man, you know, and he worked on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad.  Then, we had a railroad that crossed our farm.  It was called the Hampton and Branchville.  We loved the trains.  Me and my brother would drop everything.  We hear a train coming—we’d go run to see the train.  Wave at the engineer, and he’d let off some steam at us to scare us.

Joe:  So it actually crossed your property?

Jim:  It crossed the front of our farm.

Joe:  And that was kind of entertainment?

Jim:  That was kind of entertainment.  Yeah that was just--the steam train.  I think that’s why probably today I still like trains is because, you know, that was just everyday life.  And what it was—it was a common carrier.  They had a one-car train.  It was a gasoline powered car.  It carried mail to certain little stops, you know, like the post offices.  It would carry mail and it would pick up packages.  You could actually ship eggs to the market in cases of eggs.  You could put them by the track—they’d pick them up, take them where they were supposed to go.  But the main thing that company did was haul logs.  And it was just—when I say I lived in the country, it was thousands of acres of pineland, you know, so they would haul trainloads of logs everyday.  There’d be two trains a day.  So that was their main thing.  That’s how they got started in 1890—something like that—with the lumbermill, you know.  And then they expanded the railroad.  The total railroad is 49 miles in length!

Music in the Smoak family

Jim:  She played the piano. And my grandfather of course played the banjo.  I had an uncle—my mother’s oldest brother—played the guitar.  Really good.  Sang a lot of songs, you know.  And so there was always music and dance.  Every time we got together, if somebody could play, there was always music and dance. 

Joe:  Ok.  So, sometimes your grandfather would tell stories, and people would be kind of still and listening to him, and then other times it was more—everybody was lively?

Jim:  Yeah, at a family get-together, it seemed like he didn’t tell many stories then.  I always remember him just sitting on the back porch, and the kids all around, and talking like that.

Joe:  And at the bigger gathering you had more dancing?

Jim:  My grandfather, he was a farmer, and I guess he worked hard.  But on Sunday he didn’t lift his little finger for work.  He was available for his whole family.  I guess that’s why we went over on Sunday.  We knew he’d be there. 

Joe:  Right, right. Ok.  And what was it about music that made you want pick up the ukulele and learn tunes?

Jim:  Well, I’ll tell you, music.  I guess it was just—on my father’s side, the Smoak side, there was music.  My father, I believe today when you think about it, he had perfect pitch.  He never thought of it that way I guess.  I didn’t even know the word perfect pitch back then.  I just think—see, the music that was on that side of the family was more.  More--well, you want to call it, more legitimate music.  Not just homemade music, you know.  I had an aunt who played music in church, and she could read music, she could play by ear, play any kind of song there was, you know.  And back in that same family I had one grandmother or great-grandmother that was a concert pianist. So, there was music on that side of the family.  But on my grandfather’s side, everything was fun music.  We’d have a family get together, and my uncle always played and sang, so when I learned to play a tune he’d want me to join in and play.  I couldn’t play anything much but I could just follow him.  Music was just fun.  I think that’s why I began to like it and that’s why everybody liked it.  Music was just fun.  Singing together.  Playing together. 

Radio and Records

Joe:  Were there records around at this time, too?

Jim:  Radio stations hardly played any records.  In fact, WIS in Columbia, I can remember because when I was fifteen or sixteen years old I would go visit Snuffy Jenkins now.  And I remember them putting together a program.  And they would say, today we’re gonna do this song, this song, and this song.  And they’d come to a certain song.   I’ll just make up a song.  The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.  Maybe they wanted to play that.  And say, well, let’s play that song.  We better go upstairs and check the book.  That meant check the ASCAP book.  Because that station was not licensed to play—they didn’t have a license from ASCAP to play that music, see.  And so therefore Snuffy Jenkins couldn’t play that song on the radio, you see.  And so, there weren’t many records anyhow in those days.  You know, you think about disc jockeys.  Today we get piped in music from Chicago.  You know it’s just the top ten.  The top forty count-down and all that kind of stuff.  Well, there was no such thing as that back then.

Joe:  Right, right.  So you didn’t have a record player at home or anything?

Jim:  Oh, we had—I did have a record player at home.

Joe:  Ok.

Jim:  My grandmother gave us one of those big tall record players that you wind up—plays 78 rpm records.  And she gave me a bunch of records.  I did have that.

Joe:  Ok.  And did you have country music on record?

Jim:  It was a variety of music.  Because what they would use that for—people would put those kind of things sometimes on the front porch.  You know, I think to let the neighbors know they had one.  And so, a lot of times you would turn the record player on--I’ll tell you something else about that record player.  They had a speed control on there.  Did you know that?

Joe:  I didn’t know that. 

Jim:  Yeah, you could speed up a 78 rpm record or slow it down.  Depends on how fast you wanted to dance, you know.  Anyway, the story is at my grandfather’s house that they went to somebody else’s house, and he was called C for some reason.  He had a wind-up record player so he winded it up and was playing a record, and somebody made the comment, said that C plays that thing too fast.  Well, actually he was talking about a radio, see.  They were listening to a radio now.  And so he thought you could slow the radio down.  Like he could the record player. 

Joe:  So, a little bit of confusion.

Jim:  Yeah, a little bit of confusion in the early days.

Joe:  That’s funny.  It sounds like you were more drawn to the radio than to the records.

Jim:  Well, I just think it’s probably because—the radio, it was like, I can’t remember when Snuffy Jenkins came on the radio but I think it was like in the morning time, around breakfast time.  That’s when the farm news would come on.  And the music and all that was to get people’s attention before they went outside and worked.

Early Music Learning

Joe:  Ok. So your grandfather and your mother were both playing a little bit of banjo.  And that kind of introduced you to the instruments.  And they were playing kind of fun music that was different from what people played on your dad’s side.  Is that right?

Jim:  Right.

Joe:  And so did you actually ask them to teach you songs, or was it just kind of picking it up yourself by ear?

Jim:  You mean more songs than my mother first showed me?  My father also bought a harmonica and things like that, you know.  It’d be just lying there and we’d just play with it a little bit, put it down, so after I learned to play that ukulele, I would, you know, it was there.  Sometimes you’d just pick it up and play those tunes and then put it down and go do something else.  My attention span probably wasn’t that great.  I’d get tired of that right away.  But the thing about it is I could do it, and then I’d see my grandfather play and then I’d want to try something else, you see.  That’s kind of how it was, because I saw them playing.  And I brought a banjo that he had, it was four strings but it was tuned like a five string.  And there were no books anyhow.  There were no books on the five string banjo.  Nobody could teach the three finger style.  Nobody knew anything about that.  That was developed, if you didn’t know it, in North Carolina in the 1920s.  The three finger playing.  And so there were no books.  Like Mel Bay publishing company, they had no book on the five string banjo technique because nobody could write it down. And so just learning to play, it was just strictly around the house.

Joe:  Did you have any favorite songs that you picked up around that time from your family?

Jim:  I think just the ones I mentioned.  And I heard my uncle sing a lot of songs, you know.  And one that I still do today, probably because he did it, is a 1929 song called "Am I Blue."  I’ve got that on one of my recordings.  But when he played it, I couldn’t play all those chords.  I didn’t know how to follow those chords.  I could find the tune but I couldn’t play the chord changes.  And he didn’t know how to teach, you know.  He would just play a lot of stuff on the guitar.  Yeah, and talk about music again, my father—we had to be quiet, I think it was Wednesday or Thursday night—but he listened to WWL radio in New Orleans, Louisiana, and he did that every Wednesday night, and it was Dixieland music coming from the Roosevelt Hotel, and you had to be quiet.  He just loved music, you know, especially music of that kind.  I don’t know.  That comes from his side of the family.  And the clarinet players.  I didn’t know any clarinet players on my mother’s side.  But on my dad’s side, he just liked--my dad was a bass singer, too.  He could sing good bass, you know, in church and everything.  Anyway, so when you say what kind of tunes impressed you or anything, it was stuff like that on the radio.  Like Little Liza Jane done in a dixieland style rather than my uncle singing it in his style with the guitar over at my grandfather’s house.  And then, many years later, I moved to Louisiana and I see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and they’re doing what?  "Little Liza Jane," you know.  And the trombones and trumpets and drums and piano. 

Joe:  So it kind of made the connection between those two—

Jim:  Well, it also showed that the songs may be played differently, but just really that’s American music.  In New Orleans, that’s 800 and some odd miles from South Carolina, but yet they’re playing the same old songs, you know, the people that move around carry those songs with them.  And play them in a different style. 

More Family Music

Jim: Ok.  Well my grandfather on my father’s side was Guy Lynnwood Smoak the first.  And then on my mother’s side it was James Benjamin Kinsey.  He was known as Benny Kinsey.  And, so, he actually—his people came somehow through North Carolina, like the Newbern, North Carolina area, which is on the coast, and Wilmington is on the coast.  You know we talked about the song "Who’s Going Down to Wilmingtown?"  Anyway, that’s where the Kinsey family migrated into South Carolina from.  That area.  And, so, then my grandmother, her maiden name was Jacques, which I think is French.  J-A-C-Q-U-E-S.  That family, they had music and dancing—they seemed to go together.  That marriage was a good marriage because they all liked dancing and happy stuff.  And she played the squeezebox accordion when he played the banjo. 

Joe: Oh really?  And your parents.  What were your parents’ names?

Jim: Well, my dad was named Lynnwood Smoak—Guy Lynnwood Smoak II.  And he was just known as Lynnwood.  And my mother was name Uldean.  Uldine Kinsey.  And one of the few people in the whole world named Uldeen. 

Joe: How do you spell that? 

Jim: U-L-D-E-A-N.  My grandfather knew somebody, some family, who had a person named Uldeen, that’s why he named my mother that when she was born. 

Joe: And can you maybe describe the Sunday gatherings, just briefly.

Jim: Oh, I see.  Yeah.  It was like, after church, we’d always have to go Providence Methodist Church.  That was right about a mile from my house.  And we would go there on Sunday mornings.  And then after that we’d go over to my grandfather’s house, which was another maybe mile and a half away.  And when we get there of course, the other cousins would be there and their families.  My aunts and my uncles.  Not all of them, but a good many, seemed like all the time there was just kinfolks there on a Sunday afternoon.  And that’s when we boys especially got into the corn cob fights, you know, and awful fun.  And just played ball and just did everything we could think of doing around his farm.  It was just a new place to be, you know.  But my grandfather, after I began learning to play the banjo, he always wanted me to play something before I ever left him at home.  So I would have to play him several songs.  Then I’d have to go home and milk cows. 

Joe:  I can see why you chose the music over the cow milking.

Jim: Oh, well, you know.  There was nothing wrong with that.  My father and I used to actually almost argue about it.  I’d say, “I’ll go.”  He’d say, “no, I’ll go.”  And we would just, like, you know. And so sometimes I would take our pickup truck and go home, by myself and just go ahead and do the milking.  They would come home sometime later.  No, that was just regular farm life.  It was nothing—it was just lots of work.   And tractors.  I could drive a tractor all day long and did many times.  Singing Bill Monroe’s "Molly and Tenbrooks" from one end of the field to the other. 

Joe: Which you knew from listening to the radio?

Jim: I knew that song by heart. 

Joe: So we talked about how your grandfather would kind of perform for the family.

Jim:  He was a storyteller, you know.  He didn’t think of himself as a storyteller, he was just that kind of a personality.  He just liked to entertain his grandkids.  That was the main thing about it.  And he would just tell all these tales.  I think he did the same thing with his own children.  My mother, her sisters, and her brothers, when they were growing up.  I think he did the exact same thing.  And so here we are coming along and he just tells us all these tales while he plays the banjo.  He could play this little rhythmic pattern, you know, in the background.  And while he would be telling some tall tale.  In fact on one of my CDs I showed you a while ago, the one called "Carolina Boy," I have a tune on there called "Cooking in the Kitchen."  And I patterned that whole song after what my grandfather had done.  The verses and everything.  That was something that he would tell, about me and the old cook cooking in the kitchen.  And that’s all I could remember.  And so I just finished the song and brought in a few characters from my childhood into that song.

Joe: So you took his song and you added to it?

Jim: Yeah, I just took what I could remember about me and the old cook cooking in the kitchen.  Well, I couldn’t remember his stories that went with it, you see?

Joe: So you added some of your own.

Jim: I just made up some stories.  From the sayings that we had.  From actual other people.  In fact, when I think about it, the sayings, one was—I don’t know if it was a made-up saying from my mother and dad.  But the other one was an actual saying of this black man who worked on the railroad. He worked on our farm, he was like almost part of the family.  Him and his whole family.  Anyway, he had said this to my uncle.  So I incorporated that into my song.  Want me to tell you what it was?

Joe: Yes.

Jim: They were working in the field.  My uncle, John, who played the guitar, and Ben Chism, they were out working doing something.  I don’t know if they were baling hay, or whatever, and so, my uncle John knew that at Ben’s church there was a revival meeting.  So he asked Ben, said, “Ben, are you going to the meeting tonight?”  And Ben, he talked in kind of a course way, he said, “No, I ain’t going.  But I’ll be there when they call the roll, though.”  Meaning that he’s not going to church, but he’ll be in heaven when they call the roll.  So, that saying, we just knew that Ben said that, so I put that on my record.

Joe: I’ll have to go back and listen for that.  Did you sing it in a course voice, too?

Jim: No.  Well, I can’t remember.  I don’t think I did. 

Joe: So, we talked about your mom and her siblings were musical.  And your uncle played the guitar.  And your mom sang some songs and played the banjo.  And it sounds like your dad kind of kept instruments around. 

Jim: He did.

Joe: He kept a ukulele around that you picked up—

Jim: At first.  That’s what he bought first.  He bought a ukulele and tuned it like a banjo.  Only four strings, but that was the tuning, so I learned to play in that tuning to start with, you know.  The same tuning I use today. 

Joe: It’s interesting how your dad, he kind of helps with all the technical things in your music.  Tuning the instrument and then putting down the stylus on the disc cutter.  You know, he’s always there to do something technical. 

Jim: Yeah, he was always involved.  You know, he never told me to go practice, he never said anything like that. But he was—when you’d be doing some activity like that, he would be there and he was interested it.