Samantha Biddix was born in Jackson County, North Carolina in 1878 and grew up in the hills southeast of Asheville. Her father, Has Biddix, was a well-known local fiddler who was at first unsupportive of her interest in music, and then later grew to encourage her talents on both the fiddle and banjo. The first banjo she used was “a gourd with cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax,” until the age of fifteen, when her father bought her her first real banjo.
In her early twenties, Samantha married Carse Bumgarner, who right away supported her musical career and bought her her first fiddle. Sadly, all of her instruments burned in a house fire shortly after her marriage, leaving Bumgarner with no means of music-making or income. Struggling to get back on her feet, she bought a “ten-cent banjo” and entered a picking competition in Canton, NC; to no surprise, she won, and then continued to win several following competitions as well.
When she was 37, Bumgarner had built enough regional acclaim to be invited by Columbia Phonograph Company to travel with her friend and fellow musician Eva Smathers Davis up to New York to record her music.
The Bumgarner-Davis visit to Columbia Records in April of 1924 was one of the first times traditional string band music was ever recorded (especially banjo music), let alone by two female musicians. The video below is one of the original 1924 recordings, and in this song, Bumgarner performs both vocals and banjo, whereas on some of the other tracks she only fiddled or sang.
Though the records were hugely successful, neither Davis nor Bumgarner ever returned for additional recording or received critical acclaim. Bumgarner finished out her career continuing to perform and annually attend Bascom Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville (where she also routinely won the clogging competition). She died in 1960, and in her obituary she was recognized for her influence on mountain music, her inspiration to young women musicians, and as one of the “region’s most colorful and picturesque individuals.”
Sources: http://www.anb.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/articles/18/18-03116.html, http://www.anb.org.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/articles/18/18-03116.html, http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2013/04/samantha-bumgarner-records-the-first-banjo-record-ever.html