Samantha Bumgarner: The Original Banjo Pickin’ Girl

This article was written by Charles K Wolfe.

One of the sillier myths being bandied about these days by the Nashville establishment involves the role of women in the history of country music. It is said, down along Music Row and in the August pages of Country Music Magazine, that before the advent of Kitty Wells in the late 1940’s, women had little to do with country music’s devel­opment: they were cast as only pretty faces along to dress up the act. This, of course, is nonsense, and an account of the significant women artists who contributed to the development of the music would take up the rest of this issue of THE DEVIL’S BOX. In fact, an all-woman string band had a lot to do with the very dawn of recorded country music, and formed one of the very first string bands to ever record old-time music. The focus of this band was a remarkable woman named Samantha Bumgarner, one of the really unsung pioneers of American traditional music. Accounts of her career have been vague and shadowy; the official histories barely mention her, and none of her fine records are still in print. This ac­count itself has far too many gaps and is based on too many secondary sources, but it may function as a start for someone else to research Aunt Samantha’s life more fully, and it may act as a modest tribute to the “fiddlin’ Ballad-Woman.

The story starts, oddly enough, in New York, on a Tuesday afternoon in late April in 1924. Two women from the hamlet of Silva, North Carolina, took the elevator to the top floor of the Gotham National Bank Building, to report to the laboratories of the Columbia Phonograph Company. One of them was a tall, raw-boned woman in her mid-forties dressed in a dark stylish outfit; she carried a fiddle case and introduced herself as Saman­tha Bumgarner. Her companion was younger, wore a dark jacket over her dress, carried a banjo case, and introduced herself as Eva Davis. As they arrived at the studio, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a polite, well-train­ed singing group from Nashville, were finishing a number called “Hope You’ll Join the Band.” Soon the studio was cleared and the two women took their places in front of the big horn still used for the acoustic record­ making process. After a few tests, the pair got tuned up, and charged into an old dance tune called “Cindy in the Meadows.” Samantha played an archaic, simple fiddle lead for Eva’s rhythmic banjo chording. One of the two started singing:

Asked her if she loved me,

she said she loved me fine,

I threw both arms around her,

like a grape around a vine,

Be my wife, Cindy.

It was one of the first recordings of authentic traditional string band music: it was basic, spare, uncomplex and honest. The month before Columbia had recorded Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett in a string band format, and the month before Okeh had recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson with his Virginia Reelers. In April, though, none of these sides had been released and record company executives were still not sure what to do with them. Old-time singers the executives could understand; but the light, floating sound of a southern string band was something else: a challenge to the primitive recording technology, and a question mark as to sales potential.

Still, the producers had some interest in mountain music, and the two women from Sylva had come a long way. They let them cut ten songs: two more fiddle-banjo duets (Big-Eyed Rabbit,” and “I am my Mama’s Darling Child” – the latter a variant of Soldier’s Joy!! and quite different from the “Darling Child” recorded two years later by the Blue Ridge Highballers), two solos by Eva singing and accompanying herself vocal numbers (“John Hardy” and “Wild Bill Jones,” both well-known traditional standards), and then Samantha put down ‘her fiddle, picked up the banjo, and began picking. She did “Shout Lou,” “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” and a version of “Rovin’ Gambler” she called “Gambling Man.” Finally, she picked and sung two tunes, “Georgia Blues” and “Worried Blues,” both of which sound like analogues to the well-known “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

It wasn’t until August 1924, four months later, that Columbia released the first of the Bumgarner-Davis records: “Big-Eyed Rabbit”1 and “Wild Bill Jones.” But the records had been advertised to dealers as early as June 15, in an advertisement in Talking Machine World  where the Columbia copy writers said that Samantha and Eva were “quaint musicians” who were “famed for their skill with the fiddle and banjo.” Over the next three months, from August through November, the Columbia company released the rest of the records, and the response was gratifying: the records sold, along with the first sides by Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett, and with the early sides by North Carolina singer Ernest Thompson. A later press re­lease singled out the records by Eva and Samantha: “The Columbia Phono­graph Company reports that the newly released records by the musical dis­coveries from North Carolina, now recording exclusively for Columbia New Process records, are providing excellent sellers.  They sing and accompany themselves on banjo and violin. Their specialty is singing and playing real traditional American music, songs that are part of our national musical lore.”

(It is a sign of the times that Columbia, which had not yet perceived the market for old-time music as such, tried to “formalize” the description of Eva and Samantha’s music by referring to the fiddle as a “violin,” and by emphasizing the “folkness” of the music.)

“Big-Eyed Rabbit”was in reality not the very first string band record released, but only by a matter of months. Tanner and Puckett’s “Buckin’ Mule” and “Hen Cackle” issued in June 1924, is the first string band record that can be documented, though it/is highly likely that records by Carson’s Virginia Reelers were released at about the same time. But the records by Davis and Bumgarner were certainly among the first re­cords to document southern music, and they were the first produced by women performers.

Though Eva Davis and Samantha Bumgarner were close friends when they recorded those famous sides, Eva Davis seems to have simply dropped out of sight after this. Samantha, though, continued to attract attention around the Asheville area, and in fact became a regular fixture at the famous Mountain Dance and Folk Festival staged by the late Bascom Lamar Lunsford at Asheville every year. Before she died in 1960, several people interviewed her, and some fragments of her colorful life were preserved.

Samantha was born about 1880 in Jackson County, North Carolina, a hilly area southeast of Asheville. Her father’ was Has Biddix, a well­ known area fiddler who died in 1930 at the age of 78. Samantha recalled that he was “a fiddle-playin’ man from away back” who could make his sour­wood fiddle “croon like a lovin’ woman.” But her father would not let Samantha touch his fiddle, “but when he wasn’t at home I would sneak it out and play.” The young Samantha also determined to play the banjo; her first banjo was “a gourd with a cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax. II By the time she was 15, in 1895, Samantha could play the banjo pretty well, and her father finally bought her one; “I used to go with him and play around over the country.” Thus, like so many later women who made their mark in old-time music, Samantha got started by playing with a father who was an old-time fiddler.

Before long Samantha married Carse Bumgarner; far from being nervous about her music making, or jealous of it, Carse bought Samantha the first fiddle she ever owned. But soon after that the young couple saw their house burn, and Samantha had to watch both her instruments go up in smoke. I got another banjo,” she recalled, “but it was a cheap one. I called it a ten-cent banjo. We was in Canton and they was having a fiddler’s con­vention.. Somebody entered me in the banjo contest. First banjo contest I was ever in, and I was nervous. I knew I couldn’t hit a string. Besides I had that old ten-cent banjo. And here I looked up and saw all these fine banjos coming in from Asheville. I wanted to leave but they wouldn’t let me. I tell you, I was so nervous I didn’t know I was hitting the strings. But I won the contest. And I’ve been winning them ever since.”

Perhaps it was winning such a contest that attracted the attention of the Columbia Phonograph Company to Samantha and her music. Certainly she had a secure reputation when she went to New York in 1924 to record. But for some reason, she never returned to record any more, even though her records were so popular that Ward’s re-released a couple of them on their Harmony label. By 1928, though, she was finding other outlets for her music. In that year Bascom Lamar Lunsford started his famous Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, and Samantha was a charter member of the Festival roster. Other participants in that famous first festival included Ozey Helton and Dedrick Harris, who like Samantha had recorded commercially, and Nick Marlor, a splended ballad singer from Madison County who later recorded for the library of Congress6 Samantha thus started an annual custom that was to extend from 1928 to 1959: during all those years, she never missed one of the Asheville festivals. In the 1940’s Samantha often appeared with “Fiddlinl Billil Hensley, and often won the clog-dancing contest in addition to playing the banjo. Bascom Lunsford later recalled that Samantha and Nick Marlar would usually appear at the festival “along about sundown” every year, and that thousands of people yearly came to expect their particular brand of music at that particular time:

By the early 1930’s Samantha’s fame was spreading beyond the immediate Asheville· area, and she began to travel widely: to New York, Washington, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, even to Mexico. In the early 1930 l s she had her own show on the famous “border radio” stations at Del Rio, Texas; hers was one of the first programs sponsored by Dr. John Brinkley; the notorious goat-gland salesman, who later sponsored groups like the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, and others. Samantha always liked to talk of the time she played for the king and queen: this was probably in June 1939, when Bascom Lamar Lunsford took a troupe of dancers and singers from his Asheville festival to perform at the White House for Franklin D. Roosevelt,. Mrs. Roosevelt, and their special guests, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Throughout the 1940’s she continued to appear at the Asheville festival and to pick the banjo at local fiddling contests. She recalled that she had won nearly 100 prizes at such festivals; “I don’t play anything but old-timey stuff–Arkansas Traveler, Turkey in the Straw, and the Booger Man were old when I began playing~ By now, though, she was admitting that banjo playing was more her forte than fiddling, though she could also play mandolin and guitar. In fact, Bascom Lamar Lunsford later admitted that Samantha was the best all-around musician he knew.

In the 1950’s Samantha, now approaching eighty, found herself caught up in the folk revival that was sweeping the country. In August 1955 she was written up in Life Magazine, in a story about the “banjo boom” that was sweeping the country. That same month a group of folklorists headed by Kenneth Goldstein recorded her again, this time for an LP entitled “Banjo Songs of the Southern Mountains.” Earlier Samantha had recorded for the Library of Congress, and for a record company from Liverpool England. She was also taped numerous times during the 1950’s while on stage performing.

During these last years Samantha lived along in a little white bungalow in a place called Love Field, in a valley south of Sylva. She often appeared at festivals, often dressed in rather quaint, old-fashioned frilly dresses, and played her old banjo with flowers painted on the head. She wrote a number of songs herself during her career; her favorite was one called “The Last Gold Dollar.” “I wrote that, you know, got the idea when the government took up the gold.” This would date the song from about 1934.

A text of the song suggests, though, that it was not the same song that was so often recorded by old-time musicians like Charlie Poole and John Carson in the 1920’s, sometimes under the title “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Samantha would sing:

Love me, babe, love me,

Love me like you used to,

When I’m gone,

The last gold dollar’s gone.

I have been unable to document any recordings Samantha made of this song, though the mysterious session for the Liverpool company may contain a version of it.

Aunt Samantha died on Christmas eve, 1960. She had suffered from arthritis in her last few years, and from a broken hip, and she had been unable to play for some months. Her regional fame was such that the Ashe­ville Citizen-Times printed a full-length editorial in tribute to ‘Aunt Samantha.’ It read, in part: “Mrs. Bumgarner’s death in her eighties just before Christmas marked the passing of one of this mountain region’s most colorful and picturesque individuals. She came by her fiddle and banjo playing naturally. Her father, Has Biddix, was also a fiddler. The two generations represented the traditional Anglo-Saxon folk music whose stronghold was southern Appalachia. With the melting of mountain isolation, the stronghold of folk arts was threatened in the Twenties and Thirties by patterns of uniformity. Fortunately, numerous collectors of folk songs and ballads came in too, then and before, and the many fine treasurers of folk materials have been preserved in books and on records.”

In order to fully appreciate the significance of Samantha’s 1924 re­cordings, one must realize that they represented music by a woman who was playing from a style developed about 1900 or thereabouts, and that they represent the first recordings of traditional southern banjo styles. Her career extended further back than the history of country music itself, and touched countless people. She was far from the “quaint musician”

Described by the old Columbia press release, she was a tough, honest, proud mountain woman who knew exactly where she was at and what she was doing, and her memory and her music will endure.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special thanks to Loyal Jones, to the library staff of the Asheville Citizen-Times, to Patricia Hall, Bob Pinson, and

John Parris. One of Samal1tha’s Columbia selections, “Big-Eyed Rabbit,” is scheduled for reissue on a forthcoming Rounder LP, “Early Women in

Country Music, Vol. I.” Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.