Frank Hovington materials at the SFC

Frank Hovington posing in front of his Fenton, Delaware home in April of 1978

Frank Hovington posing in front of his Felton, Delaware home in April of 1978. A still image from the video “Frank Hovington at home, Felton, Del., 30 April 1978” (VT-20466/21) in the Robert D. Bethke Collection.

One of my personal favorites in the Robert D. Bethke Collection (20466) is a video recording (VT-20466/21) of Frank Hovington playing guitar and singing at his home in Felton, Deleware back in April of 1978.

The Bethke Collection contains several original analog audio and video recordings of Frank Hovington (1919-1982), an American blues musician who was known for playing his guitar in the Piedmont blues style.

It’s a fascinating story how Frank (aka Guitar Frank), a man who lived the majority of his life in the state of Delaware, began playing the Piedmont blues. Music was in his family (Frank’s grandfather belonged to a fife and drum corps and his paternal uncle played piano and organ), but it was Frank’s neighbor, Adam Greenfield, who influenced him the most. Greenfield was a former Pullman porter from New Bern, North Carolina, who eventually bought a farm and settled about three miles from the Hovington family’s farm. According to Frank,

“They used to have what they called parties on a Saturday night, house-hops, and I would go ’round with my father and sit and hear [Adam Greenfield] play…and that was when I was first inspired to play banjo and guitar through him…I was only around five or six years old and I used to love to get right near him and watch that guitar and watch his fingers when he was playing and my father used to let me go and stay and watch him, so every time he used to be around town, I’d always make it my way to find where he was and listen to that guitar.”*

Frank Hovington on stage holding a guitar and talking into a microphone

Frank Hovington talking to elementary school students in February of 1979. A still image from the video “Frank Hovington at George M. Gray Elementary School, Wilmington, Del., 23 February 1979: tape 1 of 2 ” (VT-20466/36) in the Robert D. Bethke Collection.

Another video (VT-20466/36VT-20466/37) in the Bethke Collection documents Frank telling his Piedmont blues origin story to a group of elementary school students. I highly recommend checking this footage out. Not only do you get to see Frank tell his own story, but you also get to hear Frank play his songs to an enthusiastic audience of children, whose little voices and rowdy responses add a really special element to the video.

Now back to the 1978 footage of Frank I mentioned above. Robert D. Bethke, a folklorist who taught courses at the University of Delaware from 1977 to 2000, shot this particular video on portapak, a portable analog video tape recording system introduced in 1967 that made it possible to shoot and record video outside of a studio.

the front cover and inside of the 1/2" open reel video shot by Robert D. Bethke in 1978

the front cover (left) and a peek inside (right) of the original 1/2″ open reel video (VT-20466/21) shot by Robert D. Bethke in 1978

The video features Frank playing such traditional songs as “Railroad Blues” and “John Henry”. We also catch a glimpse of his home and property, on what looks like a nice, sunny spring day.

Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, this particular video (+ over 80 audio and video recordings found in the Bethke Collection!) have been preserved and are now accessible through the Bethke Collection finding aid (streaming access to the collection’s audio and video materials is limited to the UNC campus at this time). For your enjoyment, we’ve edited this short clip that features Frank playing “John Henry” :

"John Henry" lyrics transcribed from video recording VT-20466/21:


John asked his captain, 
When are you goin' to town?
If you bring me a twenty pound hammer, 
Beat a little steel back on down, hey gal
Beat a little steel back on
Beat a little steel back on down 

Well, who been here since I been gone? 
Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks? 
Well, who gonna shoe your cozy feet? 

John Henry's woman, she talked so fair 
Get my shoes from a steel-drivin' man 
Kisses from a millionaire, hey gal 
Kisses from a millionaire 
Kisses from a millionaire 

John Henry asked his captain, 
When are you goin' to town? 
If you bring me a twenty pound hammer, 
Beat a little steel back on down 
Beat a little steel back on
Beat a little steel back on down 

Early in the morning, 'bout the break of day 
Heard a voice in the wilderness, cryin, 
Well, my side givin' away 
Well, my left side givin' away 
Well, my left side givin' away 

Well, Who been here since I been gone? 
Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks? 
Who's gonna be your man? 
Who's gonna be your man? 

John Henry's woman, well, she talked so fair 
Get my shoes from a steel-drivin' man 
Kisses from a millionaire, hey gal 
Kisses from a millionaire 
Kisses from a millionaire 

Well, who been here since I been gone? 

John Henry's woman, name was Polly Ann 
Day she heard John Henry died 
She drove steel like a man, hey gal 
She drove steel like a man 
She drove steel like a man

Frank may be best known for his album Lonesome Road Blues, which like the video clip above, features intimate home recordings of Hovington, but this time on guitar, vocals, AND banjo. Folklorist, Bruce Bastin, and musicologist, Dick Spottswood, made the album recordings at Frank’s home over a July weekend in 1975, just three years before Bethke made his way to the same address. The album was released by Bastin’s label, Flyright Records, in 1976 (FLY LP 522) and then again by Rounder Records in 1979 (Rounder Records 2017).

LP covers of Lonesome Road Blues by Frank Hovington

FLY LP 522 (left) and Rounder Records 2017 (right)

The Southern Folklife Collection has copies of both of these releases (pictured above), as well as materials relating to the Flyright release in the Bruce Bastin Collection (20428). We invite you to dig through all of these materials across SFC’s collections to get to know Frank Hovington and his music. A good start may be Bastin’s impressive liner notes on Lonesome Road Blues, as well as the subject files and images of Frank found in the Robert D. Bethke Collection. Happy sleuthing.

*Frank Hovington quote taken from Bruce Bastin’s liner notes to Frank Hovington: Lonesome Road Blues.- Flyright FLYLP 522 (1976)

Calling all country music fans

meade_countryDick Spottswood is preparing to update the reference book COUNTRY MUSIC SOURCES, first published by the John Edwards Memorial Forum and the Southern Folklife Collection in 2002.  Anyone with corrections, additions or updates is invited to contact him online at dick@wamu.org. UPDATE: Joe Hickerson has generously signed on to expand and update bibliographic entries; contact him at jhick@starpower.net 

The book provides information on some 14,500 recordings of 3,500 old-time folk and country songs recorded between 1921 and 1942. Each performance receives a full citation, including the date and place of recording, original and variant artist, and title credits. Whenever possible, songs are traced back to their original lyricists and composers or to major published and unpublished folksong collections. Entries are grouped into broad subject categories: ballads, popular songs, religious songs, and instrumentals.

Based on 35 years of research in public and private collections of recordings, broadsides, pamphlets, and sheet music, this valuable resource allows a fresh understanding of pre-World War II country music and its intricate connections to the blues, old world folk music, and the broad spectrum of American popular song.

“One of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of country music scholarship. It is a big, juicy mother-lode that contains more new, hard data than anyone in this field has seen in years. . . . A definitive reference book that should be on every library shelf and in the hands of any serious student of American music.” –Journal of Country Music

2003 Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Country Music, Association for Recorded Sound Collections