FARAWAYHILLS

WOMEN IN EARLY COUNTRY MUSIC

A Tribute to the First Female Recording Artists

Country Music today, in its various guises and genres, has many dozens of well-loved and respected female singers and songwriters, and each year thousands of girls in many countries enthusiastically take up those mainstays of Old Time and accoustic music, the fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar. Despite this, the history of previous generations of women performers, especially in the earliest days, seems to be comparatively little known. Although this page is far from attempting a discography or full set of biographies, it can hopefully reveal a little about some of the interesting personalities who - eighty years or so ago - took those first steps in bringing Mountain Music to the radio and the recording booth.

If the contribution of women to early Country Music has not been more evident, the answer would seem to lie in the social and commercial attitudes of the time. Women were always important in preserving and passing on traditional music within the home. For example, according to Susan and Geoff Eacker, in their article "A Banjo on her Knee", when the British folk song collecters, Cecil Sharp and Maude Karpeles, toured the Southern Appalachians in 1916-17, about three quarters of the 900 plus songs they transcribed were sung to them by women. The Eackers also note that many well-known performers, including Ralph Stanley and Granpa Jones, were first taught to play instruments by female relatives. Yet despite this, few women were found performing outside the home, particularly during the Depression and Prohibition years, when money was scarce, conditions often difficult and sometimes violent, and the attitude of city-based businesses often unsympathetic. This makes the story of those women who did make a public mark in those early days even more interesting. Although some of the careers mentioned here did overlap those of better known artists like the Carter Family, I have tried to identify those who have a strong claim to be considered the first in a particular field.

Aunt Samantha Bumgarner

"I'm Goin' Down This Long Lonesome Road"

Aunt Samantha with fiddle Aunt Samantha with her other instruments
Aunt Samantha strikes a rather serious pose for this portrait, which perhaps does not reflect the descriptions of her kindly and fun-loving nature. Another portrait of Samantha Biddix Bumgarner with the instruments she loved.
(Credit: Library of Congress)(Credit: Sylva Herald & Western Carolina University)

Aunt Samantha Bumgarner was a true pioneer - one of the very first to bring traditional music "down from the Mountain" and, as such, a forerunner of all the women who have played and sung Country Music to a wider audience outside the home. It seems that she, with her friend, and fellow North Carolinan, Eva Davis, were the first women to sing on a Country Music recording, and Samantha is also believed to be the first person of either sex to be recorded playing the five string banjo. These recordings, for Columbia Records, took place, probably in New York, in April, 1924 (thus pre-dating the more famous recordings at Bristol, Tennessee, which included the recording debut of the much-loved Carter Family, by some two years).

Samantha Biddix (later Bumgarner) was born in 1878, perhaps in Tennessee, although she was associated for her whole life with Jackson County, North Carolina, particularly the neighbouring towns of Dillsboro' and Sylva. Her father played the fiddle, but was not keen for his daughter to take up that instrument, still nicknamed by some "the Devil's Box". (She said that, nevertheless, she did "sneak" the fiddle out to practise on her own.) He did, however, allow her to have a banjo, at first home-made, later replaced by a "10 cent" store model. Samantha entered the (mainly male) local banjo competitions, starting at Canton, NC, later recalling, with a big grin, how nervous she was, but how she won, and had been winning ever since! (It was probably her success at these contests that led to the later invitation to record for Columbia, who billed her as a "discovery from North Carolina").

After her marriage, her husband bought her a fiddle, and she became proficient on both instruments. She took part in the first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, NC, in 1928, and appeared there every year until 1959. (She died in 1960, aged 82). Among others, she inspired folklore enthusiast Pete Seeger, but her best known pupil was probably Henry Cagle, who toured with her as a boy, and later founded the band "the Country Cousins"

There has been some discussion of her title of "Aunt Samantha" (which appears on her gravestone, and which even President Roosevelt used when she appeared at the White House.) One writer suggests that such nicknames were encouraged by the showmen and record companies to foster a "rural" image, while the Bumgarner family believe that it may have been used to make her more acceptable to male musicians and their (sometimes boisterous) audiences. However, it should also be noted that there is a wider tradition of bestowing "Uncle" or "Aunt" as a title of affection and respect, and several other traditional musicians are known in this way.

Aunt Samantha appeared on Dr.John Brinkley's radio station, XERA, which was powerful enough to beam broadcasts back to the South Eastern United States from its base in Del Rio, Texas. She performed in the big cities, including New York, Washington, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, and Kansas City, and possibly made later recordings for a company from England. (I have no firm details of that, but it may have been during the folk revival of the 1950s). Like the Coon Creek Girls, she appeared before King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) on their State visit to America.

It is, however, those April, 1924 Columbia recordings by Aunt Samantha and Eva Davis which stand out as part of the beginning of Country Music's commercial history. This is a listing of those historic tracks (which include several traditional standards), indicating which of the women is credited with the performance:

SOUND SAMPLE FROM "WORRIED BLUES" (MP3 format)

Eva Smathers Davis

As shown by the listing above, Eva Smathers Davis shares with Samantha Biddix Bumgarner the distinction of being the first female Country artist on record. Both are credited with solo performances. Unfortunately, I have not found a photograph, or any details of her, beyond that she too came from Sylva, NC. She may at one time also have been known as Eva Jones. As the vocal style on the next sound sample is quite different from the previous example, I am assuming that this is Eva's voice, with Samantha on fiddle.

SOUND SAMPLE FROM "BIG-EYED RABBIT" (MP3 format)

Roba Stanley

"And No Man Shall Control Me"

Roba Stanley

(Credit: Georgia State University)

Roba Stanley was probably the first female Country singer to have performed on the radio, leading to her being described as the first "Sweetheart" of Country - then called "Hillbilly" - Music (It has also been claimed, for example in "The Women of Country Music: A Reader", that she was the first to make a solo record, but this information appears to be mistaken. Although the session recorded by Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis may have been wrongly interpreted as including only duets, most of their tracks were in fact solos, and their session was three months before Roba recorded.)

Roba was born in Dacula, Gwinnett County, Georgia, in either 1908 or 1910, and died in Florida in 1986. Her career as WSB (Atlanta) radio's teenage "Sweetheart" lasted only a year, for she retired as a musician when she married. Her age when she recorded in 1924 was given as 16, but later research suggested that she was, in fact, only 14 (the older age being perhaps put out by the record company to avoid problems with the child labour laws).

Roba's father, Robert Morland Stanley, was an accomplished fiddler who had won the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers Convention, and Roba often appeared with him. They performed with a number of other Georgia musicians, including the renowned Gid Tanner (and, incidently, one of Roba's recordings was "Devilish Mary", which also became one of the most famous numbers by Gid's Skillet Lickers).

Roba appeared on only nine recordings, made in Atlanta on different dates for Okeh Records. On one, Roba is credited with her father (Bob), and on others with Bill Patterson (about whom I have no further information). The "Stanley Trio" thus presumably refers to Bob, Roba, and Bill (who are also once credited by their names). It is only on her last recording, the two sides cut in 1925, that Roba is actually credited alone - and that may reflect the popularity of her radio appearences, for even on those, she has another instrumental accompanist. It is one of those last recordings "Single Life", which attracts most attention today, for its spirited celebration of feminine independence. (This aspect is enhanced, though, by hearing the song alone, as it has been revived in modern compilations. In 1925, it was first issued in a pair with the lament "Old Maid Blues" - thus looking at the single life more ironically, from two different ages.)

Rosa Lee Carson

"Moonshine Kate"

Moonshine Kate

(Credit: Georgia State University)

Rosa Lee Carson was the daughter of one of the most famous fiddlers of his era, "Fiddlin'" John Carson, himself a prolific early radio and recording artist. She was born in Atlanta in 1909 (the family was originally from Fannin County, Georgia), and died in 1992. Her stage nickname, used from 1928 (and the pinches of snuff she used in her stage routine) came from two of the titles of her father's songs, "Moonshine Kate" and "Kate's Snuffbox".

Rosa Lee, who often appeared in a joint musical and comedy act with her father, also played guitar and banjo with his string band, the Virginia Reelers. She cut her first record, for Okeh, at the age of fifteen, but her real claim as an innovator is that she was probably the first female artist in Country Music to develop her own regular stage and radio act, performing musical comedy routines in the spirited and quick-witted character of "Moonshine Kate". She and her father had toured widely, appearing in Canada and Mexico - probably another "first" for a female Country artist at this early date.

Including instrumental contributions, it has been estimated that Rosa Lee may have appeared on something like 170 recordings; this partial listing, of Okeh and Bluebird releases, emphasises those on which she was billed with a prominant role: lower case indicates a recording made with her father; known solos by Rosa Lee are in capitals, * indicates the 1925 recordings made before she adopted the nickname Moonshine Kate

SOUND SAMPLE FROM "MY MAN'S A JOLLY RAILROAD MAN" (MP3 format)

Billie Maxwell

Billie Maxwell

Credit Yazoo Records, who have included "Billy Venero" on a reissue of old Western songs

Billie Maxwell, who had worked as a real-life cowgirl, deserves a place in this tribute as the first woman to record Western, or Cowgirl, songs. Regretably, beyond listing these 1929 recordings she made for the Victor Company, I have no other details on her career.


The Coon Creek Girls

Although their career (beginning in 1937) was later in date than the pioneering artists featured on this page, the Coon Creek Girls deserve to be noted in this tribute as the first all-female string band to record and win widespread recognition on the radio. I hope to develop a separate page on this interesting and important group, and the artists who stemmed from its tradition.

Web resources:

Appalachian Women and Traditional Music The first page of an extensive listing of books and articles on the subject (Note: this only gives the bibliographical references, to be consulted in an academic library)
A Banjo on her Knee An article on "Appalachian Women and America’s First Instrument" by Susan and Geoff Eacker, from the Old Time Herald
An article from the Sylva Herald (North Carolina) on Aunt Samantha Bumgarner
An article in the Tuckasegee Valley Historical Review on Aunt Samantha Bumgarner (available in Adobe's "Portable Document Format", which requires a browser plug-in to be read on line. The Google Search Engine have an HTML version that can be read without plug-ins)
A general article "From Sweethearts to Saddle Pals: the emerging roles of female performers in country music", Jill McWhorter and Ben S. Austin
An exhibition on Radio WSB. Atlanta from Georgia State University. Besides the two Georgia photographs credited above, it also includes a picture of Anita Sorrells Wheeler (later Mathis), the only woman to win the Georgia Old Time Fiddlers Convention (on two occasions in the 1930s)
A photograph of the Stanley Family showing Roba (in later life), second from the right, with her father, Robert Morland Stanley, second from the left
The New Georgia Encyclopedia article on Rosa Lee Carson, with a link to that on her father, Fiddlin' John Carson
Concise profiles of many figures in Country Music.
Tyrone Settlemier & Steve Abrams' listings of 78 rpm recording labels and their chronological releases.
Some complete tracks from early recordings are available at Honking Duck
And also at The Archive Organization
A collection of early material by women artists has been recently reissued by Trikont Records
Readers are encouraged to visit the web resources named above for information on earlier research in this field; all material appearing here, including photographs and sound samples, is for personal study and information only, and any and all rights are reserved to their respective owners. This page is a new compilation and may not be re-used for any public or commercial purpose; any use for personal study should acknowledge the web address below:
http://homepage.ntlworld.com/farawayhills
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Uploaded: 20/5/04

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