The First Ladies of Country Music: Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis’s 1924 Recordings

Samantha Bumgarner & Eva Davis – the First Female Folk and Old-Time Recording Artists, 100 Years Ago Today in Country Music, April 22 and 23, 1924

On April 22 & 23, 1924, North Carolina folk singers Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis became the first ever female folk and old-time country recording artists. Following only Eck Robertson, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Henry Whitter, Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and maybe George Reneau, they were among the first handful of all country recording artists. Bumgarner and Davis’ session also wins honors as the first female duo, first female solo, and likely the first 5-string banjo recordings.

Samantha Bumgarner was born Sarah Samantha Biddix in about 1878, and although most biographies note her birthplace as Dillsboro, North Carolina, early census records indicate her birthplace as Tennessee. A marriage record for Samantha Biddix and John Lyle is recorded in Cocke County, Tennessee in 1895, and in Haywood County, North Carolina in 1898, hinting that the Biddix family lived near the Tennessee-Noth Carolina line. Samantha’s father, Haselton ‘Has’ Biddix, was a fiddle player of local renown, and by the time she was fifteen Samantha was playing banjo and fiddle. Mr. Lyle may have passed away because in 1902 she married Carse (aka, Carson) Bumgarner. By 1910 Samantha Bumgarner was working as a dressmaker in Dillsboro, North Carolina. She was already in her mid-40’s when Columbia records recruited her the late April 124 session in New York City.

Who is Eva Davis? One of the best deep dives was published in the Sylva, North Carolina Herald in 2019, and they still couldn’t come to a definite conclusion. Some think her name was Eva Smathers Davis, others believe her to be Edith Smathers Dozier, while others think she may be a lady named Eva Mundy Davis. A brief note printed in the Jackson County Journal on April 25, 1924, was headlined “To Make Columbia Records,” and it reads, “Mrs. Carson Bumgarner and Mrs. M.M. Davis left, last Sunday, for New York, where they will be for a week or ten days for a try-out with the Columbia Grafonola people to make banjo and vocal records.”

According to the Columbia logs, the duo cut five sides together on April 22nd, including “Cindy in the Meadows,” “Big-Eyed Rabbit,” and the instrumental “I Am My Mamma’s (Darling) Child.” The duos feature Bumgarner on fiddle and vocals and Davis on banjo. Later that same day, Eva Davis cut two banjo-vocal solos, “John Hardy” and “Wild Bill Jones.” The next day on April 23rd, Samantha Bumgarner recorded seven solo sides including the banjo instrumental “The Gamblin’ Man.” Columbia also pressed most of the titles on their budget labels Harmony, Diva, and Velvet Tone with the pseudonyms ‘Gardner and David,’ ‘Luella Gardner,’ and ‘Eva David,’ with one Harmony pressing credited to ‘Luella Gardner and Davis.’

Samantha Bumgarner was active in the Western Carolina folk music scene for decades after the Columbia session. When Bascom Lamar Lunsford started his Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, Bumgarner joined as an annual participant beginning in 1928, attending most years until just before her death in 1960. When future folk icon Pete Seeger was just 16 years old in 1935, he attended Lunsford’s festival with his musicologist father Charles Seeger and stepmother composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, who worked with the Depression Era Work Progress Administration (WPA). Pete Seeger later credited Bumgarner as his inspiration for learning the 5-string banjo, saying “I learned to play the banjo after first hearing one played by a mountain girl named Samantha Bumgarten (sic) who came from the Great Smokies.”

Davis apparently never recorded again and Bumgarner did not record again until after World War 2 during the folk revival movements, but their April 1924 session with Columbia stands as a remarkable window into pre-War folk and country music.

This article was reposted, with permission, from the Document Records Facebook page. We thank Document for their great labors in all they do. Follow them on Facebook for more posts like this and visit their website for the recordings.


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