Hazel Dickens: A tribute to the Singer and her Songs

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Hazel Dickens: A Tribute to the Singer and her Songs

by Richelle Putnam

On June 1, 1935, Hazel Dickens was born the 8th child of 11 children. In the documentary Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2001), Hazel said she’d been born late in her mother’s life and that they lived near the coal camp, Montcalm, in Mercer County, West Virginia. Her father hauled timber and coal, and her brothers, cousins, and uncles worked in the mines. Music was for pleasure, and they got together with neighbors to play and sing. Saturday nights, they looked forward to the Grand Ole Opry. Her father, H. N. Dickens, was an old-time banjo picker and played for dances until he became a Primitive Baptist minister. “The high-lonesome sound generally came from the church,” Hazel explained, which greatly influenced her singing. Her father often made her sing in front of people, and it was always the same tune: “Man of Constant Sorrow,” in the unaccompanied style of Primitive Baptists. 

Hazel’s life in coal country was hard. Like most mountain people in those days, Hazel didn’t graduate from high school. A few of her nieces and nephews graduated high school and went to college, but most worked early on and sacrificed their entire lives in the mines and the factories. Hazel’s first job was in a factory. She and a few of her siblings joined the migration in search of better work and ended up in Baltimore when she was 16, in the early 1950s. Like other migration transplants, Hazel, her siblings, and others formed an Appalachian community within the factory community. They got together to visit and play the familiar mountain music from home.

During that time, musician/musicologist Mike Seeger worked in Baltimore at a tuberculosis ward, and there he met Hazel’s brother, Robert, who was a patient. Mike Seeger, the half-brother of folksinger Pete Seeger, was interested in new sounds, songs, and the Dickens family. In Hazel’s documentary, he said, “It was just mountain music in 1954.” Seeger introduced the Dickens siblings to other musicians in the area and took them to see performers like Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Mike, Robert, and Hazel performed as a small group, which Bobby Baker joined for a short while. Hazel bought her some cowgirl shirts to look the part.

At one of the jamming sessions with other musicians, Hazel met Jeremy and Alice Foster (Gerrard). Alice’s husband had told her about the little-bitty girl with a great big voice. According to Hazel, when Alice, who was classically trained, and she sang together that night, “our voices just matched, better than singing with men.”  

In 1966, Anne Romaine and her Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project organized a southern states tour of musicians. Out of necessity and because of the lack of funds, Alice and Hazel worked up duo work for this politically themed tour.

Hazel had seen firsthand the exploitation of working-class people.

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Writing her lyrics about that exploitation, she discovered the power of honest expression and how it emotionally affected others. Her song, “Working Girl Blues,” expressed angst against the wealthy boss living in luxury off the toil of the laborers he barely pays. She wrote about the tragic life of miners in coal country through her brother’s story, “Black Lung,” and her song, “Mannington Mine,” about the early morning explosion on November 20, 1968, at the Consol No. 9 coal mine north in Farmington, West Virginia. There is little doubt the rallies and the protest songs aided in the United States Congress passing the 1969 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act that improved safety standards, increased Federal mine inspections, and provided better safety and health rights to miners. Her concern, however, did not dwindle, and in 1989, she performed at the Benefit for Striking Pittston Miners in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But Hazel also recognized the plight of women, and she wrote about it in her song “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” Women of the early 1970s fighting equality battles in a man’s world flocked to hear Hazel and Alice.

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“It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song,” wrote Hazel Dickens. She said she wrote traditional and political songs to satisfy both sides of herself. “I was learning about my own self and what was inside. I had never had the opportunity to express myself, and so I didn’t know what was in there.”

Hazel left future bluegrass generations a piece of advice through her interview with the National Endowment for Arts after she became a 2001 NEA National Fellow:

“Be yourself. The hardest thing in the world is realizing that you have to be yourself, and you’ve got to say what’s in your heart and mind instead of trying to emulate somebody else. When I started out, I kept comparing myself to a lot of the writers that I liked. I’d tell myself that I could never write anything like them. But you don’t do it overnight. You have to keep plugging away at it.”

Hazel’s awards:

Award of Merit, International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), 1993; induction, Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association (SPBGMA) Hall of Greats, 1995; Best Bluegrass Female Vocalist Award, Washington Area Music Association (WAMA), 1998; honorary doctorate, Shepherd College, 1998; 2001 NEA National Heritage Fellow

Hazel’s recordings with Rounder Records:

Singles and EPs

“They’ll Never Keep Us Down” (Rounder Records, 1976) – for the film Harlan County, U.S.A.

“Busted” / “Old Calloused Hands” (Rounder Records, 1980) – from the album Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People

Solo albums

Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People (Rounder Records, 1980)

By the Sweat of My Brow (Rounder Records, 1983)

It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song (Rounder Records, 1987)

A Few Old Memories (Rounder Records, 1987)

With Alice:

Hazel & Alice (Rounder, 1973)

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (Rounder, 1976)

Others:

Come All You Coal Miners (Rounder Records, 1973) –  included Dickens singing “Black Lung,” “Cold Blooded Murder,” “Clay County Miner,” “Mannington Mine Disaster.”

They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs (Rounder Records, 1984) – included new studio recordings “Coal Mining Woman,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” “Coal Tattoo,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” recorded for the 1982 film Coalmining Women.

Coal Mining Women (Rounder Records, 1997) – included an a cappella performance of “Clara Sullivan’s Letter” and compiled songs from 1973 Come All You Coal Miners and 1984 They’ll Never Keep Us Down releases