musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Dora Mae Wagers -- 2. Home


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Dora Mae was born on July 14th, 1927 in Laurel County, Kentucky, an area now tucked in the Daniel Boone National Forest, just off highway 75 between London and Mt. Vernon. She was raised in a community dubbed Oller’s Branch by some, Hazel Patch by others. But Dora Mae called it Homebrew Hollow, a name suggesting moonshiners in the back woods, just as she and her kin played banjos on the front porches.

One of her students, Ethan Eversole, put it this way: “I’d say she grew up amongst some rough characters, you know…. She wasn’t scared of anything, I don’t think, or anybody.”
As a little girl, Dora Mae was raised by her grandparents. Her father, Henry Woodall, was a railroad man, and out of the picture. Her mother worked for the railroads, too, up in Ohio. She lived there, her daughter in Kentucky, and never visited until Dora Mae was eight. The girl, as she got older, went up and stayed with her mother on a few occasions, always to return to the house up Homebrew Hollow.
Her grandfather Dr. Young was a “pioneer,” in Dora Mae’s estimation. He moved to Laurel County in 1901. “Brought all their belongings on a wagon, mules you know,” Dora Mae said, in an interview she gave with Susan Eacker, in 1997. “Bought all the land on Oller’s Branch and settled there.” Settled, with his growing family—he outlived three wives, and would eventually have 22 children— he became a “horse and buggy” doctor, travelling throughout the area to aid the sick, to deliver babies.
Dora Mae’s grandmother, Sally, was a banjo player; it was her music that inspired Dora Mae, who said,  “My grandmother was one of the finest banjo players that ever picked! … Much better than me, you know.”
Her grandmother, Dora Mae supposed, “learned from… I guess, her brothers. They came from a family of musicians.” They would play on their porch, and at square dances. “There was no electricity or nothing… They didn’t go out to no big barn. They’d go to the homes and they’d move all their furniture out. They didn’t have no rugs on the floor. Just plain boards you know. Just move everything out, just pull it out and leave the chairs.” And, then, dancing. Dora Mae, in the interview with Eacker, played a driving version of Hook and Line, an old dance tune. As she stopped playing it, she said, “That wasn’t made to have any end to it. Everyone danced until they dropped.”
Her grandmother “was crippled in one of her legs, almost drawed in a sitting position.” So, she didn’t dance, but instead, played banjo for the dancers. “She did, all the neighbors: everybody played.” She had an uncle, “old man Isaiah Anderson,” who played; “He come and he had a pipe. I never will forget him as a kid. He talked to you like that, with a pipe between his teeth.”
The hollows were filled with music, as Dora Mae grew up.  In her estimation, “If you had an ear for music, you had to learn to play it yourself. The kids come up with that.”
Dora Mae was one such child. As her daughter Evelyn tells it, her mother “would go sneak in the closet and go sit in the dark and play the banjo.” She played and played in the closet, by herself. Eventually, her persistence and enthusiasm paid off, and her grandmother said Dora Mae was ready to learn. At that, her grandmother began to teach her, showing Dora Mae how to play. She’d say, “Shake your little hand, honey,” little Dora Mae learning the clawhammer style, as she called it.
“’Now honey, let your strings sound out for you,’” Dora Mae remembered her grandmother saying.  “My grandmother, when she was teaching me to play, she’d sing: ‘Sheep’s in the cornfield, cows in the clover. Tell those pretty girls I’m coming over, tell them pretty girls I’m a coming over…. She didn’t know music,” Dora Mae said, meaning her grandmother had no formal musical training: “but she sang those little songs.”
Dora Mae would sing those little songs her whole life. “My mother picked it up, and she really, she just loved the instrument,” said Evelyn. “It give her an outlet, you know… a way to express herself. Because when you kind of feel like you’re all alone… she kind of [had] been. Her mother had only the one child… so she didn’t have any other children but her. So, you know, she kind of felt like she didn’t have anybody but Mammy.”
She was married in 1946, at the age of 19, to Ford Wagers, a veteran of World War II, where he had been held a prisoner of war in Germany. “He suffered quite a bit, my dad did,” said Evelyn. “Spent much time in VA hospitals. A lot of it could be flashbacks that he’d had [about] where he was held prisoner for so long.”
Their family, Dora Mae and Ford and their five children, moved from place to place to find work: to Alabama, four different trips to California, back to Kentucky, to Cincinnati. “All the time,” Evelyn remembered, “the instruments always went with us.” The instruments were Dora Mae’s: Ford didn’t play music. “He would say, ‘all I can do is turn a radio on and off,’” remembered Evelyn.
They eventually settled back in Central Kentucky, where some of her remaining relatives still live.  “She loved to raise a garden. We did that, when we first come back to Kentucky… we dug up that new ground and raised gardens and worked hard. Come home, of the evening, and pick music on the porch. That’s what we would do. That’s all we knew to do.”