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

DORA MAE WAGERS was born near Hazel Patch in Laurel County, Kentucky in 1927. She learned to plan the banjo from her grandmother, who also taught her an extensive repertoire of ballads including “Pretty Polly,” “Young Edward,” and “Shady Grove.” Dora Mae also claims that her “haunted banjer has taught me tunes I never heard.” Found in a dumpster in Lexington with its animal hide head still intact, she believes 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.”

When she played her haunted banjo, Dora Mae’s spirited, eastern Kentucky frailing style gave way to a hauntingly-primitive sound that was both rhythmically complex and reminiscent of much earlier African American banjo techniques. Her tale of the “haunted banjer” reminds us of the historical link between black and white banjoists in Appalachia.

Dora Mae played banjo at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Kentucky for forty years (from 1946-1986). She performed with the Coon Creek Girls, Mac Wiseman, and Old Joe Clark. She passed away on July 20, 1998.

INTERVIEW:   Audio, Part 1 / Audio, Part 2Transcription
PERFORMANCE:   “John Henry” and “Wild Bill Jones”

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