Samantha Bumgarner - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
Aunt Samantha Bumgarner was a fiddle and banjo player from North Carolina who, in 1924, became the first woman to record hillbilly music. In doing so, she opened the doors for all the great female hillbilly and country musicians who followed such as Brenda Lee, Iris Dement, Jean Shepard, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Norma Jean, Skeeter Davis, Sue Thompson, Tammy Wynette and countless others.
Samantha Biddix was born in Dillsboro, North Carolina on Halloween, 1878, the same year Black Bart held up his last stagecoach and Thomas Edison patented the phonograph. Her parents were Has Biddix, himself a fiddler, and Sara MaLynda Brown Biddix. Though Biddix showed an early interest in music, her father wouldn’t allow her to touch the fiddle, an instrument often referred to by hillbillies as a “devil’s box.” Nonetheless, when he wasn’t around, she played it and displayed a natural talent. The banjo, then viewed as a slightly more acceptable instrument for women, was not forbidden and Biddix’s first – constructed from gourd and cat hide – was presented to her when she was fifteen. Later, after having demonstrated her skills for her father, he bought her a ten cent model and allowed her to accompany him in performances around the area. Ultimately, he consented to her entering a banjo competition in Canton and she won. Gaining confidence, she began entering and winning competitions routinely.
When she married Carse Bumgarner in 1902, he proved an open-minded mountain man and presented her with her first fiddle although she remained most acclaimed for her banjo playing. A few years later she acquired the nickname "Aunt Samantha." Although through the lens of modern ignorance, a woman gaining fame with the banjo may seem completely out of the ordinary, it was actually fairly common for women to play the instrument, especially amongst hillbillies. In 1916, when Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles began field recording in the upper south, nearly three quarters of the hundreds of tunes they compiled as English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians were performed by women. In addition, many famous male hillbillies learned to play from the women in their lives. Ralph Stanley was taught to play by his mother, Lucy Smith Stanley. Cynthia "Cousin Emmy" May Carver taught "Grandpa" Louis Jones. Clarence "Tom" Ashley learned to play from his aunts Ary and Daisy. Morgan Sexton was schooled by his sister Hettie. Earl Scruggs was beaten to the banjo by his older sisters, Eula Mae and Ruby.
By the early 20th century, whilst still not completely respectable, several female musicians gained a measure of popularity playing banjo, including Elizabeth "Babe" Reid, Gertrude Evans, Virginia “Aunt Jennie” Myrtle Wilson, Stella Wagoner Kimble, Pearl Wagoner, Ada Lee Stump Boarman and Julia Reece Green. By the 1920s, a veritable banjo craze swept the nation and the most popular brand was the Whyte Ladie. In some respects, Bumgarner was merely part of a tradition involving hundreds of women before her, but as an especially talented musician who usually bested her mostly male competitors, her fame spread in the recording age in a way her predecessors never could. In 1924, she was contacted by Columbia, hoping to capture her talents on shellac.
In April 1924, accompanied by guitarist Eva Smathers Davis of nearby Sylva, Bumgarner traveled to New York City where, on the 23, she and Davis recorded ten songs both together (“Big-eyed Rabbit,” “Cindy in the Meadows” and “I am My Mother’s Darlin’ Child”) and solo (“Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” “The Gamblin’ Man,” “Georgia Blues,” Shout Lou” and “Worried Blues.”) Although encouraged to continue to pursue her music professionally, she contented herself with teaching younger musicians, including Harry Cagle, who later formed Harry Cagle and the Country Cousins. When famed quack "Dr." John Brinkley, the so-called "Goat Gland King" asked her to allow him to take her to Del Rio, Texas to play on radio station, XERA, she only consented on the condition that Cagle accompany her.
In 1928, she was invited by local banjo-playing lawyer Bascom Lamar Lunsford to play at his first Asheville Mountain Song and Dance Festival. She did and continued doing so every year until 1959, even though suffering from rheumatism and arthritic hands in later years. In 1936, at one such performance, Pete Seeger was in the audience and word of mouth about her spread amongst the folk revivalist scene. Soon she was playing Chicago, Kansas City, New York, St. Louis and DC, where she performed for the enjoyment of Franklin Roosevelt. She ultimately recorded again as well, for a company in Liverpool.
At some point, Bumgarner and her husband moved to Lovefield. They never had any children and he died in 1941. Just one year after retiring from public performance, Samantha Bumgarner died of arteriosclerotic heart disease at age 82 on Christmas Eve, 1960. She’s buried in Dillsboro's Franklin Cemetery.
Although Bumgarner herself seemed happy staying in the hills and making little effort to promote her career, by the ‘30s, several Kentuckyian women, including Cynthia "Cousin Emmy" May Carver, Lily May Ledford and Laverne "Molly O’Day" Williamson – perhaps encouraged by the possibilities offered to Bumgarner – all used banjo-playing to take them away from the hardscrabble lives in the tobacco fields, hills and hollers of Bluegrass Country to professional careers as musicians. Although today the Cashville country scene has little use for anything but this week’s disposable pap, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum there does feature copies of her 78s on display. Despite her pioneering position, she’s been less well treated by the CD market, although her music is available on various internet sites.