Sam Hinton was born March 31, 1917 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was raised largely in Crockett, Texas, and after graduating high school he studied zoology for two years at Texas A&M, helping to finance his education via singing appearances. Leaving college, he moved to Washington D.C. to stay with his parents, where he worked as a window decorator for a department store and did scientific illustration for the Smithsonian in the evenings. While in Washington he and his two sisters Ann and Nell formed a semi-professional singing group called "The Texas Trio," and performed locally. In 1937 the group visited New York City to win a Major Bowes' Amateur Hour competition, at which time he was invited to join the travelling Bowes troupe as a single act. Hinton left school to tour the country with the troupe, finally settling in Los Angeles three years later, where he enrolled at UCLA to study marine biology, and met his wife, Leslie. During his stay in Los Angeles, he landed a role in the musical comedy Meet the People alongside then-unknowns including Virginia O'Brien, Nanette Fabray, and Doodles Weaver. After graduating from UCLA in 1940, Hinton was appointed director of the Desert Museum in Palm Springs, California, where he served from 1942 to 1944, moving on to San Diego, California in 1944 as Editor of Illustration at the University of California Division of War Research (UCDWR), a University of California-wide wartime laboratory that was located at Point Loma. In 1946 he was appointed Curator of the Thomas Wayland Vaughan Aquarium Museum at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego, and served there until 1964. In 1965, Hinton moved to the upper campus and became UCSD's Assistant Director, Relations with Schools, and in 1967 he became Associate Director. Despite his professional duties, he has continued performing throughout his life.
In 1947 Hinton recorded 56 songs, including "Buffalo Boy" and the "Barnyard Song" for the Library of Congress. His first commercial recording, "Old Man Atom" (by Vern Partlow) followed on Columbia in 1950. Over the next several years he also made a number of singles for Decca's Children's Series, and in 1952 issued his first LP, Folk Songs of California. After three more efforts for Decca – 1955's Singing Across the Land, 1956's A Family Tree of Folk Songs and 1957's The Real McCoy – he moved to Folkways for 1961's Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts and 1967's The Wandering Folksong. None of Hinton's musical projects distracted him from his academic duties, however, and from 1948 onward he taught UCSD courses in biology and folklore; for the National Education Television network, he also hosted a 13-part series on folk music, and for several years even wrote a regular newspaper column, "The Ocean World," for the San Diego Union. Hinton additionally co-wrote two books on marine research, Exploring Under the Sea and Common Seashore Animals of Southern California.
In 1957, Hinton founded the San Diego Folk Song Society. He made what many contend was his final public appearance at the May 11, 2002 San Diego Folk Heritage Festival, and the daylong event at the Children's School in La Jolla was permanently renamed the Sam Hinton Folk Heritage Festival.
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