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Bumgarner, Samantha (30 October 1878–24 December 1960), folksinger and instrumentalist, was born Samantha Biddix in Jackson County, North Carolina, the daughter of Has Biddix, a well-known local fiddler. (Her mother’s name is unknown.) She grew up in the hilly area southeast of Asheville, a region rich in fiddle and banjo music and in old ballads. Her father could, she recalled, make his fiddle “croon like a lovin’ woman,” but at first he would not let his daughter touch his instrument. She persisted and became adept at the fiddle; she also, like many mountain musicians of the time, developed skill on the banjo. Her first banjo was “a gourd with cat’s hide stretched over it and strings made of cotton thread and waxed with beeswax,” but by the time she was fifteen she had learned to play it so well that her father bought her a “real” store-made banjo. She began to travel with her father as he went around the region playing for dances and fiddling contests. (Before the turn of the century, the guitar was rare in the Appalachians, and a mountain “string band” often consisted of a fiddle and banjo.)...

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Cotten, Elizabeth (05 January 1893–29 June 1987), folksinger, was born near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the daughter of George Nevills, a day laborer and part-time farmer, and Louise (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Her parents’ blue-collar jobs were tied to the largely agrarian economy that supported the black community in Orange County. One of five children, “Libba” Cotten’s formal education did not extend beyond elementary school. She was attracted to music as a child. She began playing her older brother Claude’s banjo and guitar shortly after the turn of the century and taught herself to tune and play both instruments left-handed (upside-down). She was exposed to a wide variety of music during a fruitful and creative period for southern music. Blues was just beginning to emerge, and the ballads that developed in the United States, country dance tunes, minstrel show songs, and sacred songs were all commonly heard. Around this time Cotten wrote two songs—“Freight Train” and “I’m Going Away”—for which she later became famous....

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Fariña, Mimi (30 April 1945–18 July 2001), folksinger and activist, was born Margarita Mimi Baez in Palo Alto, California, the third daughter of Albert Baez, a physicist, and Joan Bridge Baez. Both parents were first-generation immigrants, her father coming from Mexico and her mother from Scotland. As a girl Mimi studied violin and ballet. In 1958 the family moved to the Boston-Cambridge area, and Mimi and her older sister Joan discovered the burgeoning folk music scene. They both learned to play guitar and began performing at coffeehouses. Mimi was the better guitarist, but Joan had the stronger voice, dazzling audiences with her angelic soprano. Mimi, still in high school, watched in amazement as Joan outgrew the coffeehouses, moving on to bigger gigs and signing a recording contract with Vanguard Records, the leading folk music label....

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Gilbert, Ruth Alice “Ronnie” (7 Sept. 1926–6 June 2015), folksinger, actor, and therapist, was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Sarah and Charles Gibson. Her mother was a dressmaker and her father was a factory worker; both parents were Jewish. Ronnie inherited her lifelong leftwing politics particularly from her Polish-born mother, who was long involved with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and who took her daughter to a ...

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Ledford, Lily May (17 March 1917–14 July 1985), folk music singer and musician, was born in the Red River Gorge, Powell County, Kentucky, the daughter of Daw White Ledford, a sharecropper tenant farmer, and Stella May Tackett. The Ledfords had fourteen children, of whom ten survived childhood. The family moved several times to farms within a few miles in the gorge and then around 1920 moved to a farm owned by Daw’s uncle in Chimney Top. Lily and her siblings, who sometimes made their own instruments, learned to sing hymns from their mother and to sing and play folk tunes on the fiddle, banjo, and guitar from their father, an accomplished amateur musician. Lily May seemed passionate about music and often stole away from her chores to practice. She attended a single-room schoolhouse a few miles from their home but dropped out in the eighth grade....

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Odetta (31 Dec. 1930–2 Dec. 2008), folk and blues singer was born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, to Ruben Holmes, who died when she was young, and Flora Sanders. During the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, at about age six, Odetta moved to Los Angeles with her mother and younger sister. Shortly afterward the girl discovered a budding love for music and singing. Like many black singers of her generation, Odetta’s musical talent was initially nurtured in church. At thirteen she started professional voice lessons, which were briefly interrupted when her mother could no longer afford them. She soon found a benefactor in puppeteer Harry Burnette, who paid for her to continue....

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Riddle, Almeda (21 November 1898–1986), singer, was born in lower Cherburne County, Arkansas, the daughter of J. L. James, a timber merchant, singing-school instructor, and fiddler, and Martha “Mattie” Francis Wilkerson. Almeda was exposed to singing from an early age by her father, who would sing each morning from his “ballad book,” a collection of songs—many of them older American or British ballads. One of the first songs she remembers him singing is the British ballad “The House Carpenter,” which she herself continued to perform throughout her life. A distant relation of the outlaw brothers Frank and ...