31 October 2013

The First Lady of Old-Time Banjo: born 31 Oct. 1878

The BIB editor writes:

This year Ireland had the pleasure of a visit from Roni Stoneman, First Lady of Banjo - a title Roni earned by being the first woman player of bluegrass banjo to be recorded, on the first bluegrass LP ever released.

Today (31 October) is the 135th anniversary of the birth of Samantha Bumgarner (née Biddix) of Jackson County, North Carolina, who at the age of 45 went with her friend Eva Davis to the Columbia studios in New York in April 1924 and recorded twelve or fourteen songs and tunes with fiddle and banjo, four of which were not released. They thus became the first female American rural musicians to make commercial recordings, and 'Aunt' Samantha has been reckoned as the first Appalachian musician of either sex* to record with a 5-string banjo ('classical' and ragtime 5-string players had, of course, been doing it for decades). Several of the Columbia recordings can be heard on YouTube; none of them, however, appeared on the historic Harry Smith anthology or the recent Smithsonian CD Classic banjo. She performed at Bascom Lamar Lunsford's Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, NC, for thirty years from its foundation in 1929, and in the 1930s made a further mark on banjo history when her playing impressed the teenaged Pete Seeger. She continued to play till shortly before her death in 1960.

Several photos of Samantha Bumgarner are on the internet; one I particularly like, from the Southern Folklife Collection, can be seen here.

Other useful sources are 'A banjo on her knee — Part I: Appalachian women and America’s first instrument', by Susan A. Eacker and Geoff Eacker, published in Old Time Herald magazine; a 2009 article by Wayne Bledsoe in the Knoxville News; 'Samantha Bumgarner records the first banjo record ever', posted by Dave Tabler earlier this year on the Appalachian History website; biographies of Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis on the Bluegrass Messengers website; and a well illustrated article by Eric Brightwell on his Amoeblog.

Update: an article by Richard Thompson - featuring a YouTube video of one of the 1924 recordings, 'Shout Lou', an instrumental complete with dance calls - is on Bluegrass Today.

*Update 31 Dec. 2016: According to Bob Carlin (p. 144 of his Banjo: an illustrated history), Land Norris of Georgia recorded some weeks before Samantha Bumgarner.

*Update 24 Aug. 2017: See Jody Stecher's detailed criticism of the Eackers' 'A banjo on her knee' in Old Time Herald, viii, no. 4 (summer 2002), pp 3-6, in which he points out that Fiddlin' John Carson and the Virginia Reelers recorded with banjo in March 1924, and argues that Eva Davis should be considered coequal with Samantha Bumgarner.

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