musical lives, remembered in story & sound

IN HER FIRST HEAVEN

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.

Dora Mae Wagers -- 3. Onto The Stage

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Dora Mae Wagers -- 4. The Teacher

Dora Mae’s love of music was infectious; she loved to pass the music on to others. In an interview with Susan Eacker, she said; “I’m an old dude. I love to encourage them: the young ones.”
“She enjoyed teaching other people to play the same kind of music she did,” Evelyn said. “My mother loved all music, but she wanted to [teach] the traditional music.”
 

Dora Mae Wagers -- 5. The Festivals

Dora Mae became a frequent attendee of bluegrass festivals throughout central Kentucky. “She’d pick all night and day,” Evelyn remembered, sometimes never going to the stage, but playing tunes, instead, outside of her trailer. Ethan said that to him, it seemed that “she liked to perform some, but I think she liked sitting around jamming, better.”

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.

Dora Mae Wagers -- 7. The End

 

Dora Mae’s husband, Ford, passed away in 1990. “She never did remarry again,” Evelyn said. But she had a boyfriend, some years later, and told her daughter, “‘Well, why should I marry him, he draws good money, I draw good money, and…  I’m too independent.’” Her mother was independent, Evelyn said. “She had to be, though, if you were raised like my mother, where she had been raised by her grandmother. You had to be independent. You had to know what you wanted, and do it. And she loved her music. [She’d say,] ‘I just pick it because I want to pick it hear myself.’ She used to tell us that… ‘I’m gonna play this cause I want to hear it. And that’s the way she was.’ She loved her music.” Music, a piece of her independence.

Lella Todd

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Lela Todd

“Living now… is a lot different than when we were (young), cause there (were) no shows and no television, no radios. So you had to make your own entertainment. So, if you had somebody like Lella, you had it made.”

 -- Letha Sexton, about her old friend

Lella Todd -- 2. Neighborhood Mother

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The couple never had any children of their own; but, instead, adopted an entire neighborhood of them. One such child was Letha Sexton, now an old woman living just down the road from where she grew up. I met with her in the spring of 2009, and she told me what she remembered, with a striking fondness for the woman who had once lived and played music down the road.

“There was a lot of children round in the neighborhood,” she said, “and they took every child there in, played ‘em music, had ‘em dancing, fed ‘em popcorn.” Claude didn’t play music, but was an avid dancer, and was known to shake a leg while Lella fiddled, children dancing all around.

Lella Todd -- 3. Laughter

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Lella, said Letha, was “a little heavyset lady. She wore glasses. And giggled all the time. She laughed, yes, she was like a kid, you know.” She would spend her days with the neighborhood children. She’d take them into the garden, to pick greens; into the river, to fish; into the road, to play games.

“I remember walking down the road,” Letha remembered, as she drove me down Forge Mill Road, some 60 years later. “It was just a sandy road then… and we’d play hop scotch. I think every little girl’s played hopscotch. So, Lella would hopscotch too… and she just laughed, when she’d jump. She’s so jolly.”

Lella Todd -- 4. Well-Rosined Bow

 

Lella always kept her instruments—fiddle, banjo, guitar—on a red upholstered fainting couch in her living room, Letha remembered. “She never would let us play her music instruments. Probably could’ve taught us to play music, but they were precious to her. She kept them on this couch, and we were never to touch them.” Letha bought the couch after Lella passed away, showing it to me proudly, sitting in the corner of her living room.

She played “all the string instruments,” as Letha remembered. “She played fiddle a lot,” she said. “She’d get that thing and cut loose on it… And if I can remember right, she got that old banjo, and really let it go.” She was, as Letha described her, “in her first heaven, playing music.”

Lella Todd -- 5. Fiddling so memorable

 

Claude passed away in 1951. Upon his death, Lella moved from Powell County to Winchester, in Clark County, where she stayed with a number of relatives and friends, among them Serena, and a woman named Ms. Quisenberry, whose sons she’d take out hunting and fishing. In those years, Serena said, as her aunt moved from house to house, “the one thing she always took with her was her rifle, and her violin.”

 

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 1. Oh, the sound of her fiddle!

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“I saw her when she was young, a teenager. Play the fiddle, Charleston dance, and sing, all at the same time. I never see nobody do that but her."                                         -- Carl Brickey, her cousin

When I first heard a recording of Emma Lee Dickerson playing music, I was captivated :  the driving pulse of her bow, the wild finger picking of the guitarist, playing behind her.

I learned a few of the tunes she played, listening closely to the ways she bowed each tune, the way she phrased it, the way her fiddling relentlessly drove to the end of each phrase. Her fiddling is not smooth— her bow moves up and down, for nearly each note, with such fire and vigor. Adapting my bowing style to incorporate the back and forth drive of hers, the tunes become fierce, powerful things, as I began to feel and play the tunes.

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 2. Early Days & Front Porch Fiddling

emma lee photo1.jpgEmma Lee Dickerson was born in 1923, and began to play music as a young girl on Little Fork, a rural farming community in Elliot County, in northeastern Kentucky. Her father, fiddler Alonzo Theophilus “AT” Johnson passed away when she was ten months old, his fiddle left for her hands.

Emma Lee Dickerson - 3. A Quiet Home

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Emma Lee, with one of her three children.It was the son of one of Levi's co-workers, Wilson Dickerson, who successfully wooed Emma Lee. No easy task, in Carl’s remembrance. “There was other boys interested in her, but she wasn’t interested in them,” he said.

She was “backward,” he said, by which he meant she was a shy, timid young woman. “I don’t know how your dad did it,” he said to Sharon. Oh, she replied, he was a dashing, handsome man, that’s how.

Emma Lee Dickerson : 4. Fiddling

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Emma Lee went for long stretches without playing. She played as a young girl, her cousin Quentin explained, in an interview in 1973 and then “she quit until a year or two ago when I came back down and said Emma Lee, I know you can play the fiddle, now quit this fooling around. She picked that fiddle up, and the tunes she played when she was a girl, she started right up, just like she hadn’t never been away from it.”

Emma Lee went for long stretches without playing. She played as a young girl, her cousin Quentin explained, in an interview in 1973 and then “she quit until a year or two ago when I came back down and said Emma Lee, I know you can play the fiddle, now quit this fooling around. She picked that fiddle up, and the tunes she played when she was a girl, she started right up, just like she hadn’t never been away from it.”

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 5. Looking Upwards

 Near the end of her life, Emma Lee, in Carl’s words, “got saved.” A woman who hadn’t grown up particularly religious, she, as an adult was an active member of her church, which she helped found. As she grew older, she found new inspiration and dedication towards Christianity.

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 6. Legacy

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 Emma Lee’s playing is preserved, her legacy made, in a number of recordings, housed in archives in Kentucky. In home recordings made by Quentin and Carl Brickey, and by friends of Emma Lee’s, at jam sessions, she can be heard playing a few fiddle tunes, backing up her friends as they sing.

 
And, on one side of a tape, she can be heard, playing guitar and singing, no holds barred, high and lonesome, in duets with Quentin. Those recordings are at the Morehead State University Archives. Truly magnificent singing, there.

Lois Short

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“Once you heard her, you wouldn’t forget it…. She could tear you up with…the feeling she would put into the song.”            –-Guy Carawan

The video plays, a woman rocking back and forth in a rocking chair. The woman, to a crowd of people seated around her, says, “Now, I sing loud, I sing big. I sang in church, and I learned to sing big and loud, and I can’t break myself of it."

Lois Short -- 2. Harlan County Home

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Lois was born in 1919, in Kilke, Virginia, a mining community just south of the Kentucky border, to Nanny and Willy Flannary. She was one of ten children, six girls and four boys. They grew a garden, hunted in the woods; her father tended a general store.

Lois Short -- 3. Kitchen Music

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Of Lois’s music making, Kathleen remarked, “She didn’t start singing ‘til after your dad died.”
She did sing, in fact, but just never on a stage, never outside her home, as long as her husband lived. She sang, said Larry, “just in the kitchen, there, around the house… she didn’t travel around or anything.”

Kitchens, and front porches had been the comfortable home of banjo tunes and ballads for generations, but for Lois, that kitchen concert hall was the sign of a dream deferred, or even obstructed.