musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Dora Mae Wagers -- 6. Her Tunes

Dora Mae’s playing can be heard on a few recordings made through her career as a performer. She is featured on a Rounder Collection of Kentucky banjo players, playing versions of Wild Bill Jones, and Young Edward. Both were songs she sang, at one point, but later in life her voice dropped dramatically (perhaps, in part, to the cigarettes she smoked), and she didn’t sing as much. “I think that made her self conscious,” said Evelyn. She recorded the tunes, simply, with the banjo, for the collection put together by John Harrod. “What she had done, she had traded ‘em, her things on the CD, for some CDs.” Evelyn received them, after her mother had passed.

A performance given at Berea College, with Moses and Evelyn, is recorded in its entirety, and available for listening in the archive. A few of the songs are available to hear online—Evelyn kept talking about one song, in particular, The Crawdad Song. “I’m the one’s doing all the yelling and playing the bass, and my husband was singing. He would sing aback up to her, we’d sing harmony to her. But… that one was so nice because I hadn’t heard her sing in years.”

“Every time I go to school, I’ll pull [the crawdad song] up on the internet and play it for the kids... And they’ll start laughing and they can’t be still, cause their little feet starts dancing. And they say, who is that, and I say this is my mamma, and I say, can you figure out who those other people are, and they would hear my voice and they’d say, that was you yelling on there!” A memory that kept Evelyn laughing, as she told it.

Dora Mae cut a record at some point during her time at Renfro Valley Barndance, a collection of songs and fiddle tunes, with Lily May Ledford playing fiddle as she rarely did with the Coon Creek Girls, and Rosie Ledford on the guitar. It is a truly fine recording; marvelous singing, great banjo picking and fiddling, but one that’s gone sadly out of circulation. There are a few tapes of the original LP floating around, made and sold by Dora Mae’s boyfriend, later in her life. Attempts are being made to hunt down the original recording, with the hopes of rereleasing the songs, so more can have the pleasure of hearing it, a recording of her distinctive banjo playing and singing, made in her musical prime.

“She was a good solid banjo player,” said John Harrod. “Her singing was just classic,” he said, for the particular style of banjo she played. Hers was a style, shared by Lily May Ledford and Stringbean Akeman, a hard-driving, strum-based style, to accompany singing.

“Mostly, she just played it straight,” said Ethan Eversole. “She had a lot of drive in her playing, and I don’t think she wanted to lose any of that drive, with the drop thumb… did about everything with pull offs and hammers, you know, and she had a lot of expression. I mean, he always patted her foot real hard, you know, she’d be playing and throw her head back. I mean, watching her was as much fun as listening to her.”

In addition to banjo, she played a bit of fiddle, and the guitar; “she just played anything, about, with strings on it,” Ethan remembered. Dora Mae, over the years, collected a number of banjoes. She played a 1927 Vega, which had belonged to “Grandpappy Callahan, one of the [Renfro Valley] barn dance entertainers.” They traded it, for another banjo she had: he wanted to have something of hers, a keepsake, it seems, from the way Dora Mae told it.  She had her grandmother’s banjo, a 1919 Gibson.

Her most storied banjo was one from the late 1800s, a simple open-backed model with dozens of brackets holding the skinhead on the pot of the instrument. It was haunted, in Dora Mae’s reckoning. “It taught me old tunes… tunes I never heard [before],” Dora Mae said of that banjo, “One time that thing communicated with me and I could just close my eyes and do an old tune.” It was found in a trashcan in Lexington, outside an old house that had been refurbished; it had, Dora Mae said, “belonged to a black man, and that was his only possession that he had…. I’d have premonitions. I’d get up…at 1 o clock n the morning and to get up and sit up sometimes ‘til 3, just whenever it’d [the banjo] turn me loose.” Tunes would come out, haunting modal tunes, that her other banjos didn’t quite inspire her to play.

“I used to cry like a baby, that thing affecting me so much, when I’d try to talk about it,” she said. “‘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.”