Samantha Bumgarner of Sylva was one of the first women and first traditional Southern banjo players to record old-time mountain music. Best known as a banjo player, she played both fiddle and banjo on her 1924 recordings with Eva Davis which were among the earliest Southern string band records to be released.
Bumgarner, whose maiden name was Samantha Biddix, was born in Jackson County. Her father Has Biddix was a fiddler. Many old-time musicians recall that they first learned to play by sneaking their father’s instrument out when he was not at home; Samantha did so with her father’s fiddle, and also learned banjo as a child. Her first banjo was “a gourd with a cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax.” By the age of 15 she was accompanying her father on the banjo when he went out to play in the surrounding communities.
Samantha Bumgarner performed at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville in 1929, and appeared every year subsequently until 1959. In the 1930s she traveled all over the country playing music, and had her own show on a Del Rio, Texas, border station. In 1939, at the invitation of Bascom Lunsford, she was one of several mountain musicians to perform for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England. Even in her old age she played music regularly in the Asheville area, winning instrumental and clogging contests and coming to the attention of members of the folk revival. Bumgarner died on Christmas Eve, 1960.