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Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security

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Old Man Atom: Sam Hinton [1950]

Vern Parlow spoke for many nervous human beings when he came up with the unforgettable lyric invoking Albert Einstein's famous reservations about atomic energy: "Einstein says he's scared, and when Einstein's scared I'm scared." This semi-satirical, talking blues folk tune is, like Sir Lancelot's Atomic Energy, a call to action to control and limit the proliferation of atomic weapons. It is, indeed, that rarest of early Cold War tunes, the anti-Bomb song. The first generation of atomic music, as has been clearly demonstrated on this box set, was overwhelmingly Pro-Bomb, but this track is rarer still because Hinton's release was actually popular. It was influential New York DJ Martin Block who broke the song on his 'Make Believe Ballroom' program and his audience ate it up. Soon Columbia had acquired rights to its distribution and, as also heard on this set, The Sons Of The Pioneers issued their hurried-to-release, watered down version of the tune. Reportedly, even Bing Crosby was going to record a cover for Decca, but right-wing attacks on RCA Victor and Columbia (condemning the labels for promoting a Communist ideology) influenced the labels to pull the song from distribution. Despite angry editorials over the labels' cowardice published in 'The New York Times,' 'Variety,' 'Life,' and 'The Saturday Evening Post,' the record remained pulled. The song, however, rose again as part of the folk revival of the '60s and was performed by numerous artists.

Old Man Atom's (originally titled Atomic Talking Blues) writer, Vern Partlow, was a folk singer and union activist who also worked at newspapers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and in San Francisco, California before coming to 'The Daily News' in Los Angeles in 1944. In a 1958 interview, Partlow recalled the history of the song which he was inspired to write after a 1945 'Daily News' story assignment:

"I was assigned to interview various atomic scientists who visited the city to speak about the atom bomb… I met with them and talked with them and I became a little alarmed, too, at what they were saying. And I agreed with them that something new had happened in the world—something that would be with us for a long time. They said that if the atomic question were not settled amicably, the failure to do so might be heralded to the universe in the appearance of a bright new star. I think possibly they were right. And so one evening, I decided maybe there could be a song about the atom bomb – a folk song about the atom bomb. This is a rather ambitious folk song, but I thought it might be done. At first I thought I might do something that would be very educational and very simple and take it right down to the sidewalk and maybe even do a 'Mother Goose'-type song about the atom bomb – something you could call 'Jack And Jill Went Up.' Then I thought well, no, we'd reach more people if had a motion picture-type title such as 'One Of Our Hemispheres Is Missing.' Then I thought we don't want to leave the church people out. We might pick them up, too. We should have something spiritual. So I thought of a title such as 'Praise The Lord And Pass The Geiger Counters.' But finally I called it 'Old Man Atom.' The song was written in 1945 and in 1950 it was published by a Hollywood commercial music publisher. It was recorded in six or eight different versions on records. It was being played on radio stations throughout the country and was the subject of rave reviews in various trade magazines. And then it suddenly disappeared from all the networks."

A 'New York Times' story on September 1, 1950 quoted Partlow's reaction over the controversy his song had stirred: "Those who protested against the song's issuance on records insisted that it parroted the Communist line on peace and reflected the propaganda for the Stockholm 'peace petition'…It was written five years ago, long before any of these peace offensives.'"

Sam Hinton later wrote of his famous record: "…Several 78 rpm recordings were on the market, on the air, and in the juke boxes for a very short time, as the song (pleading for peace) fell afoul of the Cold War hysteria of the times, and the record companies voluntarily withdrew them. Vern (Partlow), a Los Angeles newspaperman, was blacklisted, lost his job on the 'L.A. Daily News' and died not long after (note: Vern Partlow died in 1981). I was listed by State Senator Jack Tenny's Un-American Affairs Committee in the California Legislature."

Sam Hinton was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1917 and almost from birth has had an interest in collecting and learning folk music. At an early age Hinton was given a harmonica by his mother and an accordion from his grandfather and somewhat later he picked up his first guitar. At the age of eight, the young folk enthusiast won $2.00 performing in a talent contest in Tulsa. A few years later the family moved to Crockett, Texas. In Crockett, Hinton proceeded to learn a new variety of folk songs at the local black church.

While at Texas A&M studying zoology, Hinton and his two teenage sisters formed The Texas Trio and they performed in local bars before appearing on 'Major Bowe’s Original Amateur Hour' radio show in New York. It was during this appearance and that the clearly impressed Maj. Bowe recruited Hinton (but not his sisters) to join one of his traveling vaudeville units. The very next day Hinton embarked on a two year nationwide tour. When the tour stopped in Los Angeles, California, Hinton took the opportunity to enroll at UCLA and finish his zoology studies. He graduated with a degree in 1941.

As a scientist, Hinton worked for 20 years at the University of California's Scripp's Institution of Oceanography and has written three books on marine biology. As an educator, he has taught college courses for over 35 years. In 1980 Hinton retired from the science field and resumed his performing full time. Hinton has recorded over 200 songs and a dozen LPs. His Library Of Congress Session, March 25, 1947 is available on Bear Family BCD 16383. Hinton is still going strong to this day.

In August, 1950, a San Diego Union Tribune reporter wrote:

Chosen by four national magazines as the record of the month, a La Jollan's recording of a talking blues entitled Old Man Atom is taking jukebox fans by storm. The local singer who's responsible for this hysteria is Sam Hinton. In his serious moments, Sam is none other than the curator of the Aquarium Museum at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but when he's not enacting his role as a man of science, he's in high demand as a radio singer of folk ballads.

Four nickels out of every five deposited in tavern jukeboxes produce Hinton's dolorous ditty, it is reported. The craze is a mystery to the scientist. Prodded yesterday for a possible explanation, he could offer no scientific deduction. "The thing was written all of four years ago by Vern Partlow, a Los Angeles newspaperman," he said.

Apparently it's a matter of a slow timed bomb. The public's present reaction puzzles the man who, behind scenes at his job, is a solid
savant."

***

Movie Stars Parade, August 1950:

Sam Hinton's disking of Old Man Atom (The Talking Atomic Blues) may zoom into national prominence as the most controversial record of the year. A narrative on the atom bomb and a plea for peace, it is scheduled to be recorded by the major companies and in your favorite record shops by the time this column reaches you.

***

Variety, August 31, 1950:

RCA VICTOR QUIETLY QUASHES ITS OLD MAN ATOM RECORDING

Victor has quietly withdrawn its Sons of the Pioneers plattering of Old Man Atom off the market. It is reported that RCA top tier execs feel that the lyrics of the novelty stresses capitulation as an ideal to be pursued by US foreign policy in light of present world conflict, with focus, of course, on Korea.

The tune was first etched by Sam Hinton, Professor of Oceanography [sic] at Scripps Institute, on the ABC Eagle label. That rendition has since been farmed out for Columbia distribution. Columbia hasn't called in its version. Another rendition by Ozie Walters on the Coral label is still in circulation."

***



Life Magazine, Editorial, September 11, 1950:

NO PRIVATE CENSORS

As everyone knows, this page is agin' communism. It's agin' the phony Stockholm Peace Appeal which the communists have been circulating. It's agin' letting commies get away with masking themselves as 'liberals.' But it's also in favor of a sense of humor; and it doesn't like the Ku-Kluxish turn which the Campaign Against Communism has recently taken in some quarters.

Specifically we object to the fact that actress Jean Muir was kicked off the television version of 'the Aldrich Family' show, not even being given a chance to explain her reported connection with a certain fellow traveler 'innocent front' organizations.

And just as specifically, if not more so, we don't like the private censorship that has resulted in the withdrawal, by RCA Victor and Columbia Records, Inc., of 'talking blues number' Old Man Atom, presumably on receipt of complaints that it parrots the communist line on peace. The song happens to have been written five years ago by a Los Angeles newspaperman named Vern Partlow, before there was any 'communist peace offensive.'

[A line in the song says] "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men can be cremated equal." That's practically what everybody was saying back in 1946. It's not in line with the latest military views of the atom bomb's effectiveness, but that's no reason why any private group of censors should be allowed to keep the rest of the US people from buying, or refusing to buy a recording of Old Man Atom as they choose."


LYRICS/TRANSCRIPTION:
Old Man Atom: Sam Hinton [1950]

Well, I'm gonna preach you a sermon 'bout Old Man Atom
I don't mean the Adam in the Bible datum
I don't mean the Adam that Mother Eve mated
I mean that thing that science liberated
Einstein says he's scared
And when Einstein's scared, I'm scared

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini

Here's my moral, plain as day
Old Man Atom is here to stay
He's gonna hang around, it's plain to see
But, ah, my dearly beloved, are we?
We hold these truths to be self-evident
All men may be cremated equal

Hiroshima, Nagasaki -- here's my text
Hiroshima, Nagasaki -- Lordy, who'll be next

The science guys, from every clime
They all pitched in with overtime
Before they knew it, the job was done
They'd hitched up the power of the gosh-darn sun
They put a harness on Old Sol
Splittin' atoms, while the diplomats was splittin' hairs

Hiroshima, Nagasaki -- what'll we do?
Hiroshima, Nagasaki -- they both went up the blue

Then the cartel crowd put on a show
To turn back the clock on the UNO
To get a corner on atoms and maybe extinguish
Every darned atom that can't speak English
Down with foreign-born atoms
Yes, Sir

Hiroshima, Nagasaki

But the atom's international, in spite of hysteria
Flourishes in Utah, also Siberia
And whether you're white, black, red or brown
The question is this, when you boil it down
To be or not to be
That is the question
Atoms to atoms, and dust to dust
If the world makes A-bombs, something's bound to bust

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Alamogordo, Bikini

No, the answer to it all isn't military datum
Like "Who gets there fustest with the mostest atoms"
But the people of the world must decide their fate
We got to stick together or disintegrate
World peace and the atomic golden age or a push-button war
Mass cooperation or mass annihilation
Civilian international control of the atom -- one world or none
If you're gonna split atoms, well, you can't split ranks

Hiroshima, Nagasaki...

It's up to the people, cause the atom don't care
You can't fence him in, he's just like air
He doesn't give a darn about politics
Or who got who into whatever fix --
All he wants to do is sit around and have his nucleus bombarded
by neutrons

Hiroshima, Nagasaki...

So if you're scared of the A-bomb, I'll tell you what to do
You got to get with all the people in the world with you
You got to get together and let out a yell
Or the first thing you know we'll blow this world to
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Moscow, too
New York, London, Timbuktu
Shanghai, Paris, up the flue
Hiroshima, Nagasaki
We must choose between
The brotherhood of man or smithereens
The people of the world must pick out a thesis
"Peace in the world, or the world in pieces!"

Sam Hinton [1950]
Old Man Atom
(Vern Partlow-Irving Bibo)
ABC Eagle 230
Columbia 38 929

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