Photograph of Dora Mae Wagers, Dora Mae and her son-in-law, Moses, at her Livingston, Kentucky, home, in October 1997.


“JOHN HENRY” by Dora Mae Wagers: She calls this “an old time version of this song, played in the key of C.” Listen for the interesting minor chord changes in the chorus. Her version is similar to that of Dock Boggs, which was included in Harry Smith’s classic Anthology of American Folk Music. John Henry is supposedly the true story of a nineteenth-century African American railroad worker helping dig the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. When challenged by a steam powered drill to a contest of man v. machine, John Henry accepted and won the contest but lost his life in the process. A powerful metaphor for the dehumanization wrought by late nineteenth century industrialization. Recorded in Livingston, Kentucky, October 1997. Moses Hamblin on guitar, Dora Mae’s daughter Evelyn on acoustic bass.

PERFORMANCE:   “John Henry”

“WILD BILL JONES” by Dora Mae Wagers: Played on Dora Mae’s “Haunted Banjo” in a bluesy style totally unlike her previous “John Henry.” According to Wagers, this different sound comes from the fact that the owner of her haunted banjo was a nineteenth century black man who used the instrument as a spiritual medium to teach her his tunes. “Wild Bill Jones” is a song common in both West Virginia and Kentucky. Sylvia O’Brien calls it the “National Anthem” of Clay County, WV. Alan Lomax attributes it to Clay County, Kentucky. Like so many other ballads, the theme is one of gendered conflict; in this case, two men fighting over a woman. The lyrics read in part: “One day when I was a-ramblin’ around, I met up with Wild Bill Jones, a-walkin’ and talkin’ to my Lula girl. I forbid him to leave her alone. He says, ‘My age it is twenty-three, too old for to be controlled!’ I drew my revolver all from my side and destroyed that poor boy’s soul.”

PERFORMANCE:   “Wild Bill Jones”

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