Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 23, 2011

Hazel Dickens, dead at 75

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 2:18 pm

New York Times April 22, 2011

Hazel Dickens, Folk Singer, Dies at 75


Hazel Dickens, a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music, died on Friday in Washington. She was 75.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Ken Irwin, her longtime friend and the founder of Rounder Records, her label for more than four decades.

Ms. Dickens’s initial impact came as a member of Hazel and Alice, a vocal and instrumental duo with Alice Gerrard, a classically trained singer with a passion for the American vernacular music on which Ms. Dickens was raised. Featuring Ms. Dickens on upright bass and Ms. Gerrard on acoustic guitar, Hazel and Alice toured widely on the folk and bluegrass circuits during the 1960s and ’70s, captivating audiences with their bold, forceful harmonies and their empathetic approach to songs of struggle and heartbreak.

They recorded four albums during this period, the first of which, “Who’s That Knocking,” for Folkways in 1965, is considered one of the earliest bluegrass records made by women. All-female string bands like the Coon Creek Girls had been popular before the emergence of bluegrass in the 1940s and ’50s, and female country singers like Rose Maddox and Jean Shepard occasionally released bluegrass-themed projects. But Hazel and Alice were expressly a bluegrass act, using the same tenor- and lead-vocal arrangements as many of their male counterparts.

Ms. Dickens reflected on her early days on the bluegrass circuit with Ms. Gerrard in a 1999 interview for the American roots music magazine No Depression. “I’m not sure if they looked at us as a novelty, or if they took us seriously,” she said of the male acts with whom they shared bills. But, she added, “There were a lot of them, especially down through the years, that gave us respect.”

The influence of the staunchly traditional duo extended beyond bluegrass to commercial country music. Hazel and Alice’s arrangement of the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” became the blueprint for Emmylou Harris’s version of the song, and their adaption of “The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)” inspired Naomi Judd, then a single mother in rural Kentucky, to start singing with her daughter Wynonna.

Long revered by feminists, Ms. Dickens’s music, and especially her songwriting, assumed an even more political cast almost as soon as she began pursuing a solo career in the wake of the duo’s breakup in 1976. Several of her songs, including “Coal Tattoo” and the rousing organizer’s anthem “They Never Keep Us Down,” served as the musical voice of conscience for Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, “Harlan County, U.S.A.”

Whether she performed solo or with a country-style band, Ms. Dickens’s atavistic mountain inflection and delivery were inimitable, and never so much as when she sang a cappella on “Black Lung,” a harrowing dirge she wrote for her oldest brother, who died of that disease. In 1987 she sang another a cappella ballad, “Hills of Galilee,” during a funeral scene in “Matewan,” John Sayles’s movie about coal mining in Appalachia.

Hazel Jane Dickens was born June 1, 1935, in Mercer County, W.Va. One of 11 children, she grew up in a family whose survival depended on the coal industry. Her father, a Primitive Baptist preacher and a forceful singer, hauled timber to feed the household. Her brothers were miners and one of her sisters cleaned house for a supervisor at the mines. The music they sang in church and heard on the radio, particularly the music of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, offered one of their few diversions.

She moved to Baltimore in the early 1950s and worked in factories there. City living was hardly more prosperous than the life she’d known in the coal fields of Mercer County, but it did afford her exposure to the larger social and political world. She met and started playing music with the singer and folklorist Mike Seeger, who eventually introduced her to Ms. Gerrard.

In 1994 Ms. Dickens became the first woman to receive the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Merit Award for contributions to the idiom. She was later inducted into the organization’s Hall of Honor. Ms. Dickens received many other awards, including a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008. She also collaborated with Bill Malone on a book about her life and music, “Working Girl Blues,” published by the University of Illinois Press the same year.

No immediate family members survive.

A reluctant feminist role model, Ms. Dickens said she was originally scared to write about issues like sexism and the oppression of women.

“I can remember the first time I sang ‘Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here There,’ ” she said in her 1999 No Depression interview. “I was at a party standing in the middle of all these men. It was here in Washington. Bob Siggins was playing banjo, and when I got done, everyone just looked at each other, and Bob said, ‘That’s a nice song, but I won’t be able to sing it.’ And I said, ‘Of course you can.’ ”

“We were writing about our own experience,” she explained. “They were things we needed to say.”


  1. […] more: Hazel Dickens, dead at 75 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist This entry was posted in Community Blog and tagged 1976-documentary, harlan-county, her-songs, […]

    Pingback by Hazel Dickens, dead at 75 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist | Harlan County News — April 23, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

  2. Sad news indeed.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — April 23, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

  3. This is a hard loss for all those who stand on the side of the working class. Beautiful choice of song. Living in West Virginia nowadays, it can be easy to forget the human cost of the coal companies’ exploits what with the constant corporate propaganda that comes with our local news. But, having seen coal country with my own eyes as a volunteer helping the poor with basic home repair, I know for a fact that the companies don’t give a shit about those who give up their lives to do the dirty, dangerous work that, in many cases, is the only option given to them other than destitution.
    Hazel Dickens was an irreplaceable voice for struggle and she will be missed.

    Comment by Rob — April 23, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

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