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Aunt Samantha, first woman to record country music, was known as 'fiddling ballad woman of mountains'

Editor's Note: Special thanks to genealogist Harry Bumgarner for his assistance with this article.

By Rose Hooper

Samantha Bumgarner was so beloved by her mountain friends that they bestowed a special title on her. It wasn't "queen," although she played for a king and queen in England; it wasn't "star," although she was one of this country's first recording stars.

It was the affectionate blessing of "Aunt," a title she was given around age 30. Some of the Jackson County Bumgarners who are distant kin think she was given the name not only to honor her accomplishments, but to protect her. "Sam" might be a threat to a man's fiddle-playing prowess, but "Aunt Samantha" was innocent enough, they say.

Women in the early 1900s were expected to fill their role at home... as wife, mother or sister. The wide open stage was a lonely place for a lone woman, but Bumgarner climbed those stairs with as much confidence as any man. She proved that once on stage she could be just as physically aggressive in her fiddle and banjo playing as any man.

Soon others throughout the country, even men twice her age, were calling this mountain woman "Aunt Samantha," a term spoken with respect. When she played for President Roosevelt it was said he even called her "Aunt Samantha."

In 1924 Bumgarner made history by being the first five-string banjo player ever recorded on wax when she and Eva Smathers Davis of Sylva recorded for Columbia Records. The women recorded 10 songs, including the popular "Big-Eyed Rabbit," featuring fiddle-banjo sets and several solos. According to County Music magazine, that record was also the first release by women musicians in country music.

While most people believe Bumgarner was born in Dillsboro in 1878 the daughter of Has and Sara MaLynda Brown Biddix, her death certificate lists her place of birth as Tennessee.

Her first banjo was a gourd with a cat hide stretched over it and strings of waxed cotton thread. Her father, a well-known fiddler, recognized her skills and bought her a banjo, and she began performing across the region with him as a young teenager.

According to the Bumgarner family stories, Has wouldn't let Samantha touch his fiddle, but whenever he wasn't at home, she'd sneak and play it. When she married Carse Bumgarner in 1902, he gave her her first fiddle.

While music was always running through the head of this woman who would rather play the fiddle than eat, so were the ole-timey stories of the mountains. She had a knack for weaving the two together into ballads.

A woman of great patience and willingness to share, Aunt Samantha taught many young musicians. Her favorite, of course, was Harry Cagle, also of Sylva, who later formed Harry Cagle and the Country Cousins. The famed fiddler died in 1998.

When Dr. John Brinkley, a Jackson County native known as the "Goat Gland King," asked Bumgarner to go out west with him, she said only if Harry goes with me, and Brinkley replied, "It's a deal!" Years later, Cagle remembered the ride out west in Brinkley's big Cadillac with gold hub caps with "B" on them.

Aunt Samantha sang and played ole-timey ballads on Dr. Brinkley's radio station, XERA, which was so powerful (broadcasting at 500,000 watts) folks back home could listen to their "banjo-picking ballad woman of the mountains." In 1928 Bascom Lamar Lundsford encouraged her to play at the first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. She performed at that festival every year until 1959.

Her performance at the N.C. Folk Festival in 1936 inspired a young Harvard student by the name of Pete Seeger. She branched out, playing in larger cities like New York, Washington, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago and Kansas City. She even made recordings for a record company in Liverpool, England. Now many of her recordings are in the Library of Congress. The Bumgar-ner/Davis 1924 Columbia record is among a collection of rare 78 rpm country recordings housed in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.

Author Fred Chappell, fascinated by this ballad woman, recalled that she wore cowboy vests and hats as a kid. He even wrote about her in his book "Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You," calling her "Samanthea Barefoot."

While she was raised in Dillsboro, her final home was in the Lovesfield community, "about where Bryson Farm Supply is now," according to Clyde Bumgarner, who said her husband died in 1941. The couple had no children.

In her later years, Aunt Samantha was troubled by rheumatism and arthritic hands. She died Christmas Eve 1960 of arteriosclerotic heart disease at age 82 and is buried in Dillsboro's Franklin Cemetery.

The late John Parris, who wrote about her in "Roaming the Mountains" and even penned her obituary for the Asheville Citizen, nominated Aunt Samantha for the WNC Creative Arts Hall of Fame, and on Oct. 12, 1989, she was inducted posthumously.

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