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Exploring the life of musician Dora Mae Wagers

Dora Mae and her son-in-law, Moses, at her Livingston, Kentucky, home, in October 1997. Photo by Geoff Eacker

One of the early banjo pioneers in Kentucky country and folk music would be that of Laurel County native, Dora Mae Woodall Wagers.  Dora Mae Woodall Wagers was born on July 14, 1927, in Laurel County, Kentucky, to Harry and Nancy Woodall.  She was raised in the community of Hazel Patch in northern Laurel County.  She was the wife of Ford Wagers and mother to 5 children.

Dora Mae Wagers first began playing claw-hammer banjo after learning how to play from her grandmother, Sally Smith Young.  Her grandmother taught her the ballads that are standard in Appalachian music, including “Shady Grove,” “Pretty Polly,” and “Young Edward.”  She also learned to play guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.

She formed a group called The Happy Holler Boys and Girls in Corbin to play on the radio.  That group consisted of Dora Mae Woodall, Harry Wagner, and Paul Wagner.  Sometimes the Wagner brothers would bring Molly O’Day to perform.

Dora would go on to play banjo at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance for forty years (from 1946-1986). Dora performed with the Coon Creek Girls, Mac Wiseman, Home Brew Holler Clan, the Hank Darrell Band, The Baker Boys, and Old Joe Clark. She would perform under the stage name, “Miss Dora Mae.”

Dora Mae Wagers early publicity photo from Renfro Valley.

Dora Mae Wagers early publicity photo from Renfro Valley.

Dora Mae Wagers was convinced that a banjo that she found in a dumpster in Lexington was haunted.  She noted in an interview that it once “belonged to a black man and that was his only possession that he had. One time that thing communicated with me and I could just close my eyes and see…like a stacked rock fence. It’d get me up at one o’clock in the morning and I’d have to get up and sit sometimes till three, just whenever it’d turn me loose.” {Susan A. Eacker interview with Dora Mae Wagers on October 26, 1997}

It seems like the songs of Appalachia were passed down as people learned them from their mothers and grandmothers.  Songs were preserved, just as food is preserved for future eating.

Dora Mae Woodall Wagers passed away on July 20, 1998, at Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital in Somerset, Kentucky.  She had two funerals on July 23, 1998 – one was at 10:00 a.m. at Bowling Funeral Home and then at 11:00 a.m. at St. William Catholic Church in London.  She is buried at the Saint Sylvester Cemetery in East Bernstadt in northern Laurel County.

In 1998, KET featured Dora Mae Wagers’ family in one of their “Kentucky Life” specials.  Below is that episode for your viewing:

In 1999, Rounder Records released an album, “Kentucky Old-Time Banjo” that featured 38 songs that are standards in banjo picking.  Dora Mae Wagers is featured with her performances of “Young Edward” and “Wild Bill Jones”

“Play like you feel. And if you don’t feel it, you shouldn’t be up there in the first place.” – Dora Mae Wagers

Resources:

  • Oral History Interview: Banjo Women in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, by Susan A. Eacker, Marshall University Scholar in residence (October 26, 1997), Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia
  • Oral History Interview: Appalachia: Appalachian Simple Lifestyle Expression and Experience Oral History Project, by Mark Spencer, University of Kentucky (July 28, 1994), Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History University of Kentucky Libraries.
  • Obituary: Country-music artist Dora Mae Wagers dies at 71, Louisville Courier Journal (July 23, 1998).
  • Performance: Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music Festival.  (October 27, 1979), Berea College Sound Archives
  • Television: Kentucky Life TV Series: Doe Run Inn/The Musical Hamblins/Summer Art Camp – Episode 426 in 1998.  Hosted by Byron Crawford.
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