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Hazel Dickens

Hazel Jane Dickens (June 1, 1925 – April 22, 2011) was an American bluegrass singer, songwriter, double bassist and guitarist. Her music was characterized not only by her high, lonesome singing style, but also by her provocative pro-union, feminist songs. Cultural blogger John Pietaro noted that "Dickens didn’t just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them and her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads, embedded her into the cause." The New York Times extolled her as "a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music." With Alice Gerrard, Dickens was one of the first women to record a bluegrass album.

Career

Hazel Dickens was born in Montcalm, Mercer County, West Virginia on June 1, 1925, the eighth of eleven siblings in a mining family of 6 boys and 5 girls. Many of Hazels's relatives were miners, including her brothers, cousins, and, eventually, her brothers-in-law.

In the early 1950s she moved to Baltimore. She met Mike Seeger, younger half-brother of Pete Seeger and founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers and became active in the Baltimore-Washington area bluegrass and folk music scene during the 1960s.

During this time she also established a collaborative relationship with Mike Seeger's wife, Alice Gerrard, and as "Hazel & Alice" recorded two albums for the Folkways label: Who's That Knocking (And Other Bluegrass Country Music) (1965) and Won't You Come & Sing for Me (1973). Dickens and Gerrard were bluegrass bandleaders at a time when the vast majority of bluegrass bands were led by men. Together, they recorded two additional albums on Rounder Records, but Hazel & Alice broke up in 1976 and Dickens pursued a solo career where her music and songwriting became more political.

Dickens used her music to try and make a difference in the lives of non-unionized mine workers and feminists. Dickens started to write more about the lives of miners and wrote a song titled "Black Lung" about her brother, Thurman, who died from the disease. She wrote a song titled "Coal Mining Women" about the hardships women faced in the coal mining world. In 1978, Dickens performed at the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston, West Virginia, both solo and then with the former coal-miner turned musician, Carl Rutherford. Dickens began to be seen as an activist and a voice for the working people.

She appeared in the Oscar winning documentary Harlan County, USA, about the struggle of the county's miners union against scab workers, wage rights, and health conditions; sung about on the picket line in her folk songs as well as contributing those four songs to the soundtrack of the film. She also appeared in the films Matewan and Songcatcher.

Dickens received the Merit Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 1994 and was the first woman to do so. In 2001 she was presented with a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States' highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.

Death

In 2011 Dickens died in a Washington DC hospice from complications of pneumonia. After her death, it was reported in major media that she had been born on June 1, 1935, but her relatives and public records confirmed the earlier date of June 1, 1925.

Stating that "music saves mountains," fans and supporters of Dickens' activism announced a special memorial, Tribute to West Virginia Music Legend Hazel Dickens at the Charleston, West Virginia Cultural Center on June 5, 2011.

Discography

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) – Compilation, includes a new recording of the song "Pretty Bird"

    With Alice Gerrard

  • Who's That Knocking (Folkways, 1965)
  • Strange Creek Singers (Arhoolie Records, 1970) – as "Strange Creek Singers", with Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz, Lamar Grier
  • Won't You Come & Sing for Me (Folkways, 1973)
  • Hazel & Alice (Rounder, 1973)
  • Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (Rounder, 1976)
  • Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – Pioneering Women of Bluegrass (Smithsonian Folkways, 1996) – Re-mastered and re-sequenced compilation of Who's That Knocking and Won't You Come & Sing For Me

    With Carol Elizabeth Jones, Ginny Hawker

  • Heart of a Singer (Rounder Records, 1998)

    Other recordings

  • Come All You Coal Miners (Rounder Records, 1973) - Recorded At the Appalachian Music Workshop At Highlander Center, October 1972, 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.
  • Matewan: Original Soundtrack (Daring Records, 1987) - included recordings of Dickens singing a-Capella in the film, "Gathering Storm", "What A Friend We Have In Jesus", "Hills Of Galilee", and a studio recording, "Fire In The Hole"
  • Don't Mourn—Organize!: Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill (Smithsonian Folkways, 1990) - included the Joe Hill song about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, "Rebel Girl"
  • Live Recordings 1956–1969: Off the Record Volume 1 (Smithsonian Folkways, 1993) - a live Bill Monroe compilation
  • 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
  • Songcatcher: Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture (Vanguard Records, 2001) - included Dickens performing "A Conversation With Death"

    Films

    Films in which Dickens appears

  • Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976). Directed by Barbara Kopple.
  • Matewan (1987). Directed by John Sayles.
  • Songcatcher (2000). Directed by Maggie Greenwald.
  • Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2001). Directed by Mimi Pickering (Appalshop).
  • Radical Harmonies (2002). Documentary film directed by Dee Mosbacher in which Dickens was interviewed.

    Films in which Dickens contributes to the soundtrack

  • Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976). Directed by Barbara Kopple.
  • Coalmining Women (1982). Directed by Elizabeth Barret. Whitesburg, Kentucky: Appalshop.
  • Matewan (1987). Directed by John Sayles.
  • Songcatcher (2000). Directed by Maggie Greenwald.
  • Black Lung (2006). Directed by Shane Roberts.