A Few Old Memories
Over the years, people have attached a number of labels to Hazel Dickens' music: bluegrass, old-time, traditional, folk, protest, feminist, country. None of these labels is inaccurate, and all of them attest to Hazel's impressive versatility. But two common threads run throughout all these styles: good songs, songs that actually mean something, and an emotional, heartfelt intensity with which they are delivered.
All working musicians are faced with choices continually, and some choose to shape their musical styles and their messages to the tastes of the market -- or at least to what they or their agents may perceive to be those tastes. Other artists, like Hazel, have their eyes fixed on other goals. Hazel has been successful in matching her musical styles to her ideas while creating a varied repertoire. She sings many songs which she did not write herself. Some come out of the oldest cut of Anglo-American folksong traditions to have been found in Southern Appalachia. Others are from the more recent country music traditions of the past half-century. She sings these in her own style which combines elements of Southern church singing, country and bluegrass styles of the past 40 years and occasionally she will sing a ballad or song without any instrumental accompaniment drawing on the most archaic of Appalachian vocal traditions. All of these styles she comes by naturally having grown up in a religious and musical mountain family.
What is unmistakable, whether she is singing on a picket line, in a concert hall, or at a national convention of the United Mine Workers, is that Hazel has chosen to put herself and her music to work for the benefit of people faced with struggle -- for wages, for rights, for their very survival. The vocal styles she uses, strident, vigorous and harsh, or wistful, lonesome and melancholy are those of a country woman who identifies with the most basic aesthetic and ethical values of her people. Those are people born with strife and challenged with it for life. The people know it, Hazel knows it, and generations who follow us and who have forgotten the top ten tunes of today's pop and country music charts will know and respect it because hers is art of timeless and enduring values.
In good music, there's a point where the boundaries between the singer's experiences and the contents of the song start to blur -- a point where it's sometimes hard for both singer and listener to know just who is making the statement. It is a point where the singer has so totally identified with the song's situation or character that art and reality merge. Some of the great traditional ballad singers, for instance, become so absorbed in their songs that they weep during a performance. Hazel Dickens has this ability -- the ability of a good actress to submerge herself in a role. It is Hazel's ability to identify so closely with her songs that enables her to sing with such emotion and conviction -- and this, in turn, allows her to communicate these feelings to others. This is her great art -- and these songs are emblematic of this art. It brings together again the two common threads of Hazel Dickens' music -- strong words, and a dramatic presentation. This forms the latest chapter in Hazel's ongoing development into one of the country's most effective singers
(wxcerpted from liner notes by Charles Wolfe and Ralph Rinzler)
Tracks 1, 5, 7, & 18 are from Hazel's album It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (Rounder 0226), released in 1987, and produced by Ken Irwin and Hazel Dickens. It was recorded and mixed by Bil VornDick at Nashville Sound Connection. Engineering assistance by John D. Loudermilk, JR. Recorded January 23, 1986, the musicians were: Tommy Goldsmith, guitar; Jerry Douglas, dobro; Roy Huskey, bass;Blaine Sprouse, fiddle. Russ Barenberg plays lead guitar on traqck 1. (On tracks 6 & 14, the musicians were: Jim Buchanan, fiddle; Pat Enright, guitar; Roy Huskey, bass and Allen Shelton, banjo). Harmony vocals: Kathy Chiavola, Glen Duncan, Pat Enright, Cheryl White Warren.
Tracks 2, 4, 9, 11, 13 & 15 are drawn from By the Sweat Of My Brow (Rounder 0200). Released 1983. Recorded by Steve Chandler at Bull Run Studios, Ashland City TN; Jerry Shook and Colin Walker at The Shook Shack, Nashville; Bill McElroy at Bias Recorders, Springfield VA; Paul Mufson & Danda Stein at The Mixing Lab, Newton MA; Glenn Berger at Blue Jay. Produced by Ken Irwin and Hazel Dickens. Tracks 2, 13 & 15 feature Jerry Douglas, dobro; Blaine Sprouse, fiddle; Tommy Goldsmith, guitar; Roy Huskey, bass. Tracks 4 & 11 feature The Johnson Mountain Boys(Dudley Connell, guitar; Larry Robins, bass; David McLaughlin, mandolin; Eddie Stubbs, fiddle; Richard Underwood, banjo). Track 9 features: Dudley Connell, guitar; Larry Robbins, bass; David McLaughlin, fiddle; Scott Billington, harmonica.
Tracks 3, 12 & 17 are from Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People(Rounder 0126). Tracks 3 & 12 were recorded at Shook Shack, Nashville by Jerry Shook. Ray Edenton, guitar; Buddy Spicher, fiddle; Lloyd Green, pedal steel; "Pig" Robbins, piano; Henry Strzelecki, bass; Scott Bilington, harmonica on 12 only. Track 17 was recorded at Bias Recorders, Springfield VA by Norm Rowland. Carolyn Kellock, bass; John Baker, guitar and harmony vocal; Ron Thomason, mandolin; Roger Williams, dobro; Carl Nelson, fiddle. The album was mixed at The Mixing Lab, Newton MA by John Nagy, and released in 1980.
Tracks 8 was recorded during the spring of 1987 by John Nagy at Audio Matrix in Cambridge, MA. The original version of the song appeared on Rounder 0027, Hazel and Alice.
Track 16 comes from Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (Rounder 0054, released 1976). Kenny Kosek plays fiddle; Stacy Phillips the Dobro; Roger Mason, bass; Alice Gerrard, guitar and vocal; Rickard Crooks, drums; Hazel Dickens, lead vocals on verses and tenor on choruses. Recorded at The House of Music, West Orange, NJ. Mixed by John Nagy.
Track 10 id from Rounder 4012, They'll Never Keep Us Down (an album of women's coal mining songs which also features Sarah Gunning, Phyllis Boyens, The Reel World String Band and Florence Reece.) Released in 1984, Hazel's "Coal Tattoo" features Mark Hembree, bass; Pat Enright, guitar; Blaine Sprouse, fiddle; Jerry Douglas, dobro; Roland White, mandolin; Bela Fleck, banjo. Recorded at Shook Shack, Nashville by Jerry Shook. Mixed at Blue Jay, Carlisle MA by Glenn Berger.
Front cover photograph by David Gahr
Back card photograph by Ken Irwin
Design by Nancy Jean Anderson
All of Hazel's recordings are available on LP and cassette, except for track 8.
The sheer conviction in her voice, in her stance and gestures, rattles the ribcage of every audience who stands before her. It’s a voice that no record, speaker, or microphone can adequately contain: only in person can the sum of her experience be communicated. An experience of risks, firsts, and struggles. Simply put, Hazel Dickens is that rare singer for whom the song, the message, the life, and the instrument are one in the same.
Born in Mercer County, West Virginia, life’s toil and blessings presented themselves to Hazel side-by-side.
Her father carried timber for the local coal mines, an occupation that exposed to the Dickens family the suffering and exploitation of the company miners. On the brighter side of life was the music. Her brothers played guitar and mandolin, her father banjo, and Hazel sang in the church choir and listened to the Grand Ole Opry. These multiple influences resulted in Hazel’s vast repertoire, consisting of hymns, mountain folk ballads, work songs, and commercial country, bluegrass, and blues tunes.
Hazel was 16 when two of her brothers moved to Baltimore. At a time when mountain women stayed close to the hearth, Hazel followed them to the city. In Baltimore, Hazel became part of a growing number of young people who were looking for an alternative to the grim and often dangerous life faced by coal mining families.
In the late `50s, Baltimore was just one of many cities where a local scene was emerging around the groundswell of enthusiasm for folk and bluegrass music among young people. As the burgeoning musical community grew, Hazel found herself swapping songs with many other singers and musicians, one of whom was classically trained singer Alice Gerrard. Hazel and Alice took a liking to each other, becoming both friends and singing partners. Soon they were haunting the folksong archives of the Library of Congress and attending the area folk festivals where they could study the songs of some of the country’s outstanding traditional singers and players. Performances and tours soon commenced, proving to the pair their unique blend of traditional, contemporary, and original music had the power to affect and move their audiences.
Bolstered by their experiences, Hazel and Alice recorded two albums for Folkways in the late 60s. Backed by some of the finest players in bluegrass -- including legendary fiddler Chubby Wise, David Grisman on mandolin, and banjoist Lamar Grier -- the records were electrifying, thanks in no small part to the dynamic original compositions that Hazel had contributed.
In 1973 Hazel and Alice recorded their first album for Rounder Records, simply titled Hazel & Alice. This album, perhaps their purest, most soulful and direct, featured Hazel and Alice’s galvanizing singing against spare, minimal accompaniment. A classic collection of old-time and bluegrass music, Hazel & Alice’s gorgeous country harmonies continue to touch and influence musicians, artists, and fans alike. But neither Hazel nor Alice were sure about their goals in music, and they parted company soon after their second album for Rounder (Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard) was issued in 1976. Hazel continued to work at her singing career while holding down a day job until well into the late `70s, when she was finally able to devote herself to music full-time.
As is often noted, her voice has an immediacy, a directness, which belies its artfulness; it is a voice of strength, conviction and raw honesty. But in addition to her extraordinary singing, Hazel Dickens has distinguished herself as a unique and passionate songwriter. Covered by artists as renown as Laurie Lewis, Dolly Parton, Hot Rize, and Lynn Morris, her originals draw from hard experience, firm values, honesty, and steadfast integrity. Her more popular compositions include such powerful songs as “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” “My Better Years,” “Working Girl Blues,” “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” “Mama’s Hand,” “A Few Old Memories,” “Old Callused Hands,” and “West Virginia, My Home.”
Hazel’s songs about coalmine workers caught the attention of Barbara Kopple, who was producing what would become an Oscar-winning documentary: 1976’s Harlan County, USA. Four of Hazel’s songs were heard in the film. In 1986, Hazel appeared and sang in John Sayles' Matewan, a film about the massacre of striking coal miners in 1920. Work in films continues to occupy much of her time, as her authority -- coupled with extreme compassion -- makes her an ideal source for information, music, accurate portrayals of the plight of Appalachia.
Numerous awards have been given to Hazel for her contributions to music as well as the humanitarian causes she supports. In 1993 she received an Award of Merit from IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association). In 1995 she was inducted into the SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association) Hall of Greats. Her song “Mama’s Hand” was recorded by Lynn Morris and subsequently won Song of the Year at the 1996 IBMA Awards. Washington DC’s WAMMIE Awards awarded Hazel with the 1998 Traditional Female Vocalist award, and Shepherd College of Shepherdstown, WV presented Hazel with an honorary Doctorate degree for the Humanities in 1998. In the fall of 2001, she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts – the most prestigious honor of its kind, given to Dickens for her efforts to not only preserve her Appalachian musical heritage but to expand upon it and continue its relevance and vitality. Following that, in February of 2002, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Folk Alliance for her tireless advancement of folk and traditional music.
Hazel continues to record and to perform. In addition to her seven albums on Rounder (two with Alice Gerrard), the original album she recorded with Alice for Folkways has been reissued on CD. She is also the subject of a documentary, released in 2001, that was filmed by Appleshop in Whitesburg, KY. Titled, It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, the film lovingly chronicles Hazel’s life and features
Alison Krauss, Mike Seeger, Laurie Lewis, and Alice Gerrard, among others offering testimonials to the power of Hazel Dickens’ remarkable life and work.
“Dickens’ strident, impassioned voice is not a vehicle for pure entertainment. It belongs to an earlier age, when story and feeling were more important than style and instrumentation.” – Ed Morris
Hazel Dickens, bluegrass pioneer who sang of miners and downtrodden, dies at 75
Hazel Dickens, a troubadour of hard times whose raw, heartfelt songs about coal miners and the life of the downtrodden made her a revered figure in country and bluegrass music, died April 22 at the Washington Home hospice in the District. She was 75 and had complications from pneumonia.
Ms. Dickens, who grew up in a three-room shack in West Virginia’s coal country, was a forceful voice of the working class, singing with unguarded emotion of poverty, labor and loss. She often appeared at union rallies and benefits for mineworkers, and her plaintive singing was heard in the Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976) and John Sayles’s 1987 coal-mining drama “Matewan.”
( / ROUNDER RECORDS ) - “When I’m at my best is when I’m belting it out and giving it all I’ve got,” Hazel Dickens told The Washington Post in 1981.
“She is one of the absolutely finest and [most] authentic singers we have,” music historian Charles Wolfe told The Washington Post in 2001. “Her singing has not only that ‘high lonesome sound,’ but you can hear the pain and anguish and the anger in it. It is absolutely heartfelt and sincere.”
Having supported herself since she was 16, Ms. Dickens brought a bracing real-world perspective to bluegrass songwriting and was among the first to address the plight of women in the workplace. She and her onetime singing partner, Alice Gerrard, were identified with the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960s with such songs as “Working Girl Blues” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” about a woman mistreated by men.
An autobiographical song Ms. Dickens wrote in the early 1980s, “Mama’s Hand,” about leaving a mining town with “one old paper bag full of hand-me-downs,” was named bluegrass song of the year in 1996, after it appeared on an album by the Lynn Morris Band.
Ms. Dickens released a handful of albums during her lifetime — including two with Gerrard and three solo efforts — but she became a favorite performer at folk and bluegrass festivals and exerted a strong influence on such later singers as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and the Judds.
According to Ken Irwin, a founder of Rounder Records, a tribute album is in preparation, with Ms. Dickens’s songs performed by such diverse artists as Harris, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash. A new album of unreleased music by Ms. Dickens is also nearly complete.
Although she made her home in Washington for more than 40 years, Ms. Dickens always stayed true to the sound and spirit of the mountains of West Virginia.
Her rough-hewn, keening singing style grew out of her early experiences in her father’s Primitive Baptist church, where musical instruments were not allowed, and from a mountain tradition that included singers Aunt Molly Jackson and Sarah Ogan Gunning.
“When I’m at my best is when I’m belting it out and giving it all I’ve got,” Ms. Dickens told The Post in 1981. “It’s not a smooth style, it’s all feeling and emotion.”
Hazel Jane Dickens was born June 1, 1935, in Montcalm, W.Va., the eighth of 11 children. Besides his weekend preaching, her father played banjo and drove a truck delivering timber to the mines.
The family lived in dire poverty. Three of her brothers died from mining-related illnesses.
“One whole winter,” Ms. Dickens recalled to The Post, “I had to stay in the house because I didn’t have a coat.”
But there was always music, whether in church or listening to the Carter Family or the Monroe Brothers on the radio.
At 16, Ms. Dickens moved with her parents to Baltimore to find work and to be close to a brother who was being treated for tuberculosis.
With earnings from jobs as a waitress, a factory worker and store clerk, she bought a guitar and a stand-up bass and soon began to perform in local hillbilly bands.
At a tuberculosis sanitarium, she met Mike Seeger, the half-brother of folk giant Pete Seeger, and they began to work together. She later toured with folk singer Joan Baez before forming a group with Gerrard, a classically trained singer.
When Ms. Dickens began to write songs about her world of “hard-working people who just got by from pay to pay,” as she put it in one of her songs, she was as “surprised as anyone else.”
“She forever raised the bar for bluegrass writing,” Dudley Connell, a guitarist with the venerable bluegrass group Seldom Scene, said Friday.
In 1970, after her marriage to Joseph S. Cohen ended in divorce, Ms. Dickens moved to Washington. A brother is her only immediate survivor.
She gained wide recognition in 1976, when director Barbara Kopple asked Ms. Dickens to sing four songs for her documentary about a coal-mine strike, “Harlan County U.S.A.” Ms. Dickens donated her singing for free “because I knew Barbara was about $60,000 in debt on the project, and I badly wanted to see it get into theaters.”
Her rousing finale, “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” became an anthem for miners and union workers.
After managing a Mexican import shop in Georgetown, Ms. Dickens gave up her day job in 1979 to concentrate on music. Her first solo album, “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People,” came out in 1981, followed by “By the Sweat of My Brow” (1984) and “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” (1986).
She often appeared at the National Festival of American Folk Life, received a National Heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was the subject of a documentary.
In 1987, Ms. Dickens appeared in a haunting graveyard scene singing “Beautiful Hills of Galilee” in “Matewan,” Sayles’s film about union organizing in West Virginia in the 1920s.
Ms. Dickens gave her final public performance March 16 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, which typically attracts new music and a younger crowd. When a frail 75-year-old stepped on stage with her guitar, the young audience didn’t know what to expect.
“At South by Southwest, she had the Hazel swagger going,” said Connell, who played guitar alongside her that night. “She pinned them to the wall, buddy, I’m not kidding you. My guess is their mouths are still open.”
By Matt Schudel, Published: April 22