Although she never gained the national recognition or recording status that other banjo-playing women in Kentucky achieved, Dora Mae Wagers (1927-1998), was—as the title to her self-produced cassette proclaimed—“A Legend in Her Own Time.” For forty years she played banjo on the stage of the Renfro Valley Barndance, and was often billed as one of the Coon Creek Girls.
We first met Dora Mae at her home south of Berea, KY, which could only be described as a private banjo museum. Instruments hung from the walls of her living room as thick as fleas on a stray dog’s back. One belonged to her grandmother. Another was bartered off of Grandpappy Callahan, a Renfro Valley performer. The oldest instrument in her collection was rescued from the wrecking ball and found in a dumpster after an old house in Lexington was torn down.
Dora Mae Wagers was born in 1927 in Oller’s Branch, KY, near the Red River Gorge. When she was a young girl her grandmother, Sally Smith Young, taught her how to play frailing style. Dora Mae credits her grandmother with being “one of the finest banjo players that ever picked,” and even though she didn’t read music, she taught her all her tunes in the key of C.
“[W]hen she was teaching me to play she’d sing ‘Sheeps in the cornfield, cows in the clover. Tell them pretty girls I’m a comin’ over.’ When she was teaching me to do clawhammer she’d brush the strings that ways, she would. She played with two fingers and I couldn’t use my thumb. She’d say, ‘Now honey, let your strings sound out for you. ’Shake that little hand, honey’. ”
From her grandmother Dora Mae learned Appalachian ballads like “Pretty Polly,” “Young Edward,” “Shady Grove,” and “Little Birdie.”
Dora Mae grew up around Appalachian music, with songs, square dances, barn raisings, and corn shuckings always being accompanied by the sound of the fiddle and banjo. She remembered musical gatherings in her grandparent’s home, with her grandmother playing banjo when neighbors would visit each other “and they’d move all their furniture out. They didn’t have no rugs on the floor. Just plain boards. Just move everything out . . .and leave the chairs. Everyone danced until they dropped.”
When she was a teenager, Dora Mae formed a band called “The Happy Holler Boys & Girls,” the Appalachian equivalent of a “garage band,” or more appropriately “barn band.” They played on a local radio station in Corbin, KY in the early 1940s, and sometimes “they’d bring Molly O’ Day to London [Kentucky] and they’d bring us in like a side band to rest ‘em between shows. . . .They’d had them at the courthouse.”
From there it was on to Renfro Valley, where Dora Mae played with Lily May and her sister Rosie during their last four years as the Coon Creek Girls. She claimed that “ John Lair told you what to do” and that since his death “I do what I want to do.”
During our visit with Dora Mae she did just that, playing (although she would not sing, due to throat surgery) all of the old ballads her grandmother had taught her. After playing her version of “Poor Ellen Smith” she exclaimed that “Everybody’s grandfather murdered Poor Ellen Smith and got away with it!”
In addition to her grandmother, Dora Mae reluctantly admitted that her other banjo muse came to her in the form of her “haunted banjo.” When pressed to explain why she thought it was haunted, she replied as follows: “Why I’ve got up in the middle of the night. It’ll play . . .old tunes. One time that thing communicated with me and I could just close my eyes and just see as far as I could see; like a stacked-rock fence, you know.
It belonged to a black man, and that was his only possession that he had. When they cleaned out one of those houses in Lexington . . .they threw it in the trashcan. . .It had an old hide head. It was old, it was.”
Questioned further about how she knew the banjo belonged to a black man she replied: “It’d get me up at 1 o’clock in the morning’ and I’d have to get up and sit up sometimes till 3, just ever when it’d turn me loose. Let me go lay back. Oh, I suffered from loss of sleep till I’d get up and sit with that thing! It just played tunes that I never heard before in my ears.
“And then I was sitting one day playing and it just crossed my mind, ‘I think I’ll play Golden Slippers. I was sittin’ around here and I said ‘Well, I’ll tune and play it in a few minutes, and it [the haunted banjo] said ‘you can play it in this tune and this tune.’ So I’d start in a playin’ it. I used to just cry like a baby , that thing affecting me so much when I’d try to talk to you about it. ‘Cause I was afraid somebody didn’t believe and they’d think I was crazy or something. There’s a ghost in this little banjer.”
From “Banjo Women in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky,” by Susan A. Eacker, Marshall University Scholar in residence (1997), Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia