On October 31, 1878, the first lady of the old-time banjo music Samantha Bumgarner was born.
Sarah Samantha Biddix, to give her maiden name, was born, according to her death certificate, in “Tennessee”, on Halloween during the same year that Black Bart held up his last stagecoach and, more relevantly, Thomas Edison patented the phonograph.
Raised in Dillsboro, Jackson County, North Carolina, she was probably the first Appalachian banjo player of either gender to cut a commercial record; cutting 14 sides for Columbia Records during April 1924.
She showed an early interest in music, but her father, a fiddle player himself, wouldn’t allow her to touch the fiddle, an instrument occasionally referred to by hillbillies as the “devil’s box.” Nonetheless, when he wasn’t around, she played it and soon displayed a natural talent.
However, the banjo was then viewed as a slightly more acceptable instrument for women to play ,and from the age of 15 years old when she was given her first banjo, one made from gourd and cat hide, she taught herself how to play it.
Early on she entered a banjo competition in Canton and won. Gaining confidence in her abilities, she began entering and winning competitions routinely.
From 1928 until 1959 (even though she suffered from rheumatism and arthritic hands in later years) Bumgarner appeared at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Asheville Mountain Song and Dance Festivals, where she became a mainstay and a crowd favorite.
Aunt Samantha, as she was occasionally known, was, it seems, reluctant to pursue music professionally, although others encouraged her to do so. Even so, she played on radio station, XERA, Del Rio, Texas. On other occasions she played in Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, New York and St. Louis.
Mostly, she contented herself with teaching younger musicians, including Harry Cagle, who later formed Harry Cagle and the Country Cousins.
Bumgarner was among the artists Lunsford assembled to play before George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England in June 1939, at the invitation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. The concert at the White House was arranged to mark the first visit to America by a reigning British monarch and his consort.
According to his red banjo book, it was Samantha Bumgarner who inspired a then 16 year old Pete Seeger to start playing the 5-string banjo.
Cynthia “Cousin Emmy” May Carver; Ary and Daisy Ashley; Hettie Sexton; and Eula Mae Ruby Scruggs, all women who influenced a host of 5-string banjo players, directly or indirectly.
She passed away at her home in Love Field, near Sylva, North Carolina, on December 24, 1960, of arteriosclerosis of the heart. She was 82 years old.
Samantha Bumgarner performs Shout Lou:
With grateful thanks to Richard Hawkins, Bluegrass Ireland Blog, who alerted us to the significance of today’s date.