By Dave Tabler
She entered her first music contest in Canton, N.C., when she was still playing her “cheap 10 cent banjo,” Samantha Bumgarner told a Sylva [NC] Herald reporter years later.
“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 that contest. And I’ve been winning them ever since.”
Samantha’s father Has Biddix played the fiddle, but had not been keen for his daughter to take up that instrument, still in the late 19th century nicknamed by some “the Devil’s Box.” Samantha recalled that she did “sneak” the fiddle out to practice on her own. Has allowed her to have a banjo, at first home-made— “a gourd with a cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread waxed with beeswax”—later replaced by the aforementioned cheap store model.
It took awhile for the promising young musician to gain widespread recognition, though. She was 37 years old when Columbia Phonograph Company took notice of her and invited her and Eva Smathers Davis to New York City to record for them.
Bumgarner was probably the first Appalachian banjo player of either sex to cut a commercial record. In April 1924 she and Davis recorded 10 songs for Columbia, playing frailing-style banjo on six of the tunes, including “Shout Lou” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.” Columbia billed them as ‘quaint musicians’ in their subsequent promotional ads two months later in ‘Talking Machine World’ magazine. “The fiddle and guitar craze is sweeping northward!” it cried. “Columbia leads with records of old-fashioned Southern songs and dances.” (more…)