For a woman who traveled to New York City to make country music history, Eva Davis sure was good at staying out of the limelight.
I’ve written about legendary local musician Aunt Samantha Bumgarner for years, most recently last week for The Herald’s ongoing Mountain Builders history series. Every one of those stories has included the fact that Eva Davis, typically referred to as Eva Smathers Davis, accompanied Samantha to New York City in 1924, where they became the first women to record string band music. I was always so focused on Samantha that I never gave Eva a second thought.
At least not until Western Carolina University history student Annalee Blanks came by the Genealogical Society office a couple of weeks ago seeking information on Eva. Along with four others in her local history class – Autumn Chandler, Rene Cote, Brandi Delp and Ashley Berry – Annalee had the topic of Appalachian women musicians, including Samantha and Eva. The group had found plenty on Samantha, but their teacher, Rob Ferguson, wanted them to find out what happened to Eva. I didn’t know anything that would help Annalee, but I was able to put her in touch with Joe Deitz, the local musical historian who has long studied and documented Aunt Samantha.
After that, I didn’t give Eva any more thought. I concentrated on getting my own story written, planning to attend a program Annalee and the others were doing at the Appalachian Women’s Museum on May 2. I figured I’d learn about Eva as the students presented their research.
The May 2 program was a good one. The group did a great job as they spotlighted musicians of the mountains, including Caney Fork’s Mary Jane Queen, who died in 2007. Then they got to Samantha and Eva. After rattling off familiar facts and listing Samantha’s achievements, especially the famous New York City trip where the two women made recordings for Columbia Records, the students confessed that they still weren’t sure about what had happened to Eva Smathers Davis. In fact, it turns out, they weren’t sure that was even her name.
After finding several Eva Davises – but not a single Eva Smathers Davis – the students had come to the conclusion that the Eva Davis who went to New York with Samantha was most likely a woman named Edith Smathers Dozier. They based that finding in large part on a newspaper clipping of a photo taken at Samantha’s home by the Tuckaseigee River that shows her with a fiddler named Roger Coward and a guitar player identified as Edith Smathers of Waynesville.
The caption under the photo indicates the three, along with other musicians, had traveled around during the 1930s in Carson (Samantha’s husband) Bumgarner’s car. Searching instead for Edith Smathers, Annalee found Edith Smathers Dozier, who was born in 1891 in Waynesville and died in 1952 in Asheville. She married James Clifton Dozier in 1923, the year before the NYC recording trip.
The students’ theory, which seems plausible, is that Edith Dozier for some reason used the stage name of Eva Davis. Citing the same initials and the photo’s “physical proof” that Samantha and Edith knew each other, the students write that Edith Smathers Dozier is “the most promising candidate” to be the Eva Davis who went with Samantha that night.
I went away thinking perhaps we needed to correct last week’s story, that maybe we should be talking about Edith Dozier as a woman country music pioneer.
Or not. It was hard for me to believe we’d gotten it so wrong for so long. Even if “Eva” had used a stage name in New York, why would the incorrect information have persisted in local papers?
Surely someone in the area, including the late John Parris, who wrote extensively about Aunt Samantha, would have broken the story if Eva was really Edith. And, the obituary for Edith’s son, Cliff Dozier, mentions that he had been on several trips with another Asheville Citizen-Times columnist, Bob Terrell. Wouldn’t Bob have picked up on the Edith/Eva thing, if Edith was really Eva?
So I started looking online and found this biography of Eva Davis at a site called Bluegrass Messengers under the heading “Eva Smathers Davis”: Eva Davis of Sylva, North Carolina was eldest child of James and Mary Davis. She was born 1889 and grew up in Reems Creek, Buncombe, North Carolina. After she married Bascum Davis, a farmer, they lived in Swannanoa and had a son, Shannon, who was born in 1909. By 1920 Eva had remarried was a mother of five and was living in Asheville. A banjo picker and singer she played with Samantha Bumgarner and accompanied Bumgarner to the sessions in NYC in April 1924. Davis recorded two songs by herself (banjo and vocal) “Wild Bill Jones” and “John Hardy” in the first session on April 22.”
By this time (Saturday), I knew I was in over my head and phoned a friend, ace researcher George Frizzell. George found the Eva Davis who married Bascum Davis in the 1910 census, living in Swannanoa with son Shannon. He found her again in the 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses, living in Asheville in 1920, with Shannon and four more children. She didn’t remarry, however. While the 1920 census lists her husband with the incorrect spelling “Baum,” the 1930 one has “Bascom,” and the 1940 census has him as “Bascon.” In any event, this Eva Davis matches the online biography, except for one small detail. According to Shannon Davis’ death certificate, his mother was Eva Mundy Davis, not Eva Smathers Davis. Also, as George says, how did the biographer know this was the Eva Davis who went to New York?
The students found Eva Mundy Davis as well, but decided she wasn’t as likely to be the correct Eva Davis because nothing connects her to Samantha. Except the online biography, which says she’s from Sylva, though no census records place her here, and says her maiden name is Smathers, which is not the case for the Eva Davis who married Bascum. George also found an “Eva S. Davis” in 1900, age 10, living on Reems Creek in Buncombe County with parents James and Mary (as noted in the online biography), which could mean Davis was her maiden name rather than her married one.
Then I remembered the ad mentioned in last week’s story – the one with pictures of Samantha and Eva – and tracked it down online, in an image from the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina Library. The Eva in the ad and the Edith in the photo don’t really look like the same person, casting more doubt on the Edith Smathers Dozier as Eva Smathers Davis theory.
At this point, on Sunday night, George adds to the confusion, emailing a scan of this little six-line bombshell. Published in the Jackson County Journal on April 25, 1924, and headlined “To Make Columbia Records,” 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.” This matches well with the notice The Journal published after the trip, on May 2, 1924, headlined “Local Woman Makes Columbia Records”: Mrs. Samantha Bumgarner has recently returned from New York, where she went, under contract from the Columbia Grafonola Company to make one dozen banjo records for the Columbia.” Now she’s “Mrs. Samantha,” rather than “Mrs. Carson,” and that report leaves out Eva altogether, giving us no additional information on Mrs. M.M. Davis.
Turning again to the students’ research, they also found a Sarah Eva Shelton Davis (1888-1969), Eva S. Davis, and Eva Payne Davis, who they think were likely the same person. The husband for both Sarah Eva and Eva Payne is listed as Manson S. Davis, and the parents of Sarah Eva are listed as Billy Payne from Indiana and Sarah Murphy from Tennessee, while the parents of Eva S. are listed as being from Indiana and Tennessee. They found that this Eva’s parents were musicians, which is another clue this might be the right Eva. And she married someone whose name starts with “M,” making her the most likely current candidate, if the Journal story that the correct Eva was Mrs. M.M. Davis is to be mostly believed.
So, as it stands now, our story has no conclusion. We would appreciate hearing from any readers or genealogists who have information about any of these Eva Davises, Edith Dozier, or some other Eva Davis, that might solve the mystery of who went to New York with Aunt Samantha and made her name – whatever it was – a part of music history.
If you have information to share, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 226-2997.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.