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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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Carter, Maybelle (10 May 1909–23 October 1978), country-music singer and instrumentalist and matriarch of a music performing dynasty, known as Mother Maybelle, was born Maybelle Addington around Nicklesville, Scott County, Virginia, a few miles north of the Tennessee-Virginia state line. Both of her parents, Hugh Jack Addington and Margaret Elizabeth Kilgore, had deep roots in rural Scott County. Maybelle was one of ten children, many of whom grew up playing various stringed instruments. Maybelle’s mother was a banjo player, and when Maybelle was still a child she joined in as the family band played for local square dances. She played the autoharp as well, but her real fascination came when she was about twelve and one of her older brothers gave her a guitar. “I started trying different ways to pick it,” she later recalled, “and came up with my own style, because there weren’t many guitar pickers around.” The guitar was just becoming popular in the mountains, and the style Maybelle came up with—what would become known as the “Carter lick” or “thumb-brush” technique—allowed the thumb to pick the melody on the bass strings while the fingers keep rhythm downstroking the higher strings. This permitted the guitarist to pick a melody and keep rhythm at the same time, and eventually it became the most copied guitar style in country music....

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Cousin Emmy (1903–11 April 1980), country singer, banjoist, and comedian, was born Cynthia May Carver near Lamb, a hamlet in south central Kentucky near Glasgow. The youngest of eight children, she grew up in a log cabin while her father tried to make ends meet working as a sharecropper raising tobacco. Her family was musical, and she learned old English and Scottish ballads from her great-grandmother. As she grew up, she became proficient on a number of instruments, ranging from the orthodox (fiddle, banjo, guitar) to the unusual (the rubber glove, the Jew’s harp, the hand saw). A natural “show off” and entertainer, by around 1915 she was leaving the farm and trying her hand at entertaining in nearby towns. Having no real interest in school, she taught herself to read by studying mail order catalogues....

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Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch

Memphis Minnie (03 June 1897–06 August 1973), blues singer and guitarist, was born Elizabeth Douglas in the West Bank extension of New Orleans, Louisiana, known as Algiers, the daughter of Abe Douglas and Gertrude Wells, sharecroppers. In 1904 her family moved, eventually settling in Walls, Mississippi, just outside Memphis, Tennessee. Nicknamed “Kid,” she showed an early aversion to farm work and an aptitude for music, talking her father into giving her a guitar for Christmas when she was around eight. By age thirteen she had learned to play both banjo and guitar and was frequently running away to Memphis. There she played for handouts and heard older musicians, including Frank Stokes and Dan Sane, early practitioners of the guitar-duet style favored by the city’s street performers. While still in her teens, Douglas joined the Ringling Brothers’ Circus in Clarksdale, Mississippi, traveling with the show for several years during World War I. After returning to northern Mississippi, she struck up a partnership with noted Delta blues guitarist Willie Brown and a third guitar player, Willie Moore, performing for white as well as black audiences at local stores, country dances, and on an excursion boat....

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Osborne, Mary (17 July 1921–04 March 1992), jazz guitarist and singer, was born Mary Orsborn in Minot, North Dakota. Although her parents’s names are unknown, it is known that both played the guitar. Her mother also sang, and her father, a barber, led ragtime and country string bands. She took up the ukulele at age four, violin during first grade in grammar school, and guitar at age nine. The following year she joined her father’s group, in which she played banjo. From age eleven to age fifteen, while attending school, she performed twice weekly on local radio station KLPM. At age twelve she began working professionally, leading an all-girl hillbilly, dinner music, and light classical trio in Bismarck, North Dakota. As a teenager she sang and played jazz in nightclubs....

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Tharpe, Sister Rosetta (20 March 1915–09 October 1973), gospel singer and guitarist, was born Rosetta Nubin in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, the daughter of Willis Nubin and Katie Bell (maiden name unknown). Her parents were divorced when Tharpe was very young, and her mother, who sang in a local church choir, became a traveling missionary. By the time Rosetta was six, she had learned to play guitar and she and her mother had moved to Chicago. They began to make public appearances from a base at the 40th Street Church of God in Christ, with Rosetta billed as “Little Sister” because of her small stature. In the early 1930s she married Pastor Thorpe, an elder in the Holiness church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and began touring in Florida in a trio with her mother and husband. After her separation from her husband, she retained his name as her professional name, changing one letter. They were appearing in Rev. Cohen’s church in Miami in 1938 when Tharpe came to the attention of the management of New York City’s Cotton Club and later auditioned at the club....