Hazel Dickens has never appeared on country music’s hit parade, but within traditional country and bluegrass circles, her significance is undisputed. Her hard-core fans are fondly known as “Hazelnuts” and every female bluegrass singer traces her roots to Dickens’s pioneering work with Alice Gerrard. “Now beginning her sixth decade of songwriting,” noted Mary Battiata in the Washington Post, “the West Virginia-bred Dickens is increasingly spoken of as a living legend of American music…” She has also made waves within traditional circles by covering political issues. She wrote several songs for the poignant documentary, Harlan County, U.S.A., and penned feminist classics such as “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” This combination of traditionalism mixed with politics and deep artistic commitment has led to a small but influential body of work.
Dickens was born in rural West Virginia, the eighth of eleven children. The family made a meager living working in the coalfields. Her father, Hillary Dickens, known as H.D., delivered timber to the coal mines and served as a Primitive Baptist minister on weekends. Several of her brothers worked in the mines, and one brother and two brothers-in-law later died of black lung. It was a harsh life. Dickens would long remember the strict discipline of her father and the enormous burden her mother carried raising eleven children. The only bright spot in her early life was music. H.D. played banjo, her brothers and sisters sang, and Dickens learned to sing in the unaccompanied style of the Primitive Baptists. She also listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, tuning in to country stars like Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. “The country music stars of before came from behind the plow,” Dickens told Battiata. “[T]hey knew what they were writing about.”
Out of economic necessity, Dickens was forced to quit school. At the age of 16, she left the poverty of the West Virginia coalfields to live with relatives in Baltimore, Maryland. Along with her sister, she worked at a factory to support herself. “Just holding down jobs was a tremendous effort,” she recalled to Battiata. “[N]obody could have been less socialized than I was.” She began attending union meetings and was surprised to see people openly expressing their opinions. She eventually found a better job and could afford occasional luxuries, like a guitar. Baltimore had a lively music scene in the 1950s. Dickens met Mike Seeger, the half-brother of Pete Seeger, and they formed a band. The group performed locally and Dickens sang country music covers. After purchasing an upright bass for $200 and persuading a friend to teach her how to play, she began to hire herself out as a bassist and harmony singer. Throughout the 1950s she performed with a number of bands, including the Greenbriar Boys, playing on weekends while she held down a regular job during the week.
During the early 1960s, she began to receive more opportunities. She toured with Joan Baez and met a
Born Hazel Jane Dickens on June 1, 1935, in Montcalm, Mercer County, WV; daughter of Hillary (a timber deliverer and Primitive Baptist minister) and Sarah Aldora Dickens; one of eleven children; married Joseph S. Cohen, 1965; divorced, 1970.
Moved to Baltimore, MD, age 16; became involved in local music scene, formed band with Mike Seeger, 1950s; toured with Joan Baez and began performing as a duo with Alice Gerrard, early 1960s; recorded two albums for Folkways label, Who’s That Knocking (And Other Bluegrass Country Music), 1965, and Won’t You Come and Sing for Me, 1973; separated from Gerrard, 1973; recorded several songs for documentary Harlan County, USA, 1976; recorded first solo album, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, 1981; released By the Sweat of My Brow, 1984; released It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, 1986; Folkways albums rereleased, 1996.
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 degree, Shepherd College, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-0700, website: http://www.rounder.com.
classically trained singer from California named Alice Gerrard. Gerrard and Dickens began to perform at small parties and built their repertoires by conducting research at the Library of Congress. In 1963 they entered a competition at the Galax Fiddler’s Convention and completed a demo recording that won them a contract with Folkway Records. “With their songwriting skills, imaginative arrangements of traditional and original numbers, and, in particular, their impassioned and heartfelt vocal harmonies…,” wrote Stephen L. Betts and Randy Pitts in MusicHound Folk, “Hazel and … Alice became a highly influential and successful bluegrass and traditional country duet.” While their abundant skills were the first thing most audiences noticed, the fact that two women were playing bluegrass and playing it well may have seemed strange to some. Gerrard and Dickens even showed up—and were warmly received—at the prestigious Bean Blossom festival in Indiana during the late 1960s.
Between 1965 and 1973 the duo continued to perform and gain popularity, though nothing prepared audiences for their 1973 release, Hazel & Alice. Old-time arrangements, with a nod to the Carter Family and Wilma Lee Cooper, replaced upbeat bluegrass material. Original songs like “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” and “Custom Woman Blues” also had a contemporary ring, looking at the world from a woman’s point of view. Their connection to the feminist movement of the early 1970s, however, was quite accidental. They noted with surprise the inspiration young feminists received from their music: “They played folk music halls in places like Boston,” wrote Battiata, “and were amazed and somewhat unnerved to find these usually staid venues packed with screaming fans who knew the words to all of their songs.” Although a second album called Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard was released in 1976, the two performers went their separate ways in 1973.
Dickens recorded several songs for Barbara Kopple’s documentary film, Harlan County, U.S.A., in 1976 and released her first solo album, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, in 1981. Her solo career, however, only began in earnest after much soul searching and a personal crisis. Dickens had moved to Washington, D.C., where she continued to work a day job. She also commuted to Baltimore to care for her parents, leaving her little time to write songs and perform. Eventually, not long after the death of her parents, she collapsed and was hospitalized for a stomach ailment. At this time, Dickens knew she had to make a choice. “I would have been a lost soul without music—I probably still would be lost,” she told Battiata. “Probably would have wound up in a mental hospital.” Dickens finally quit her job, threw away her credit cards, and gave up her dream of someday owning a house. She recorded By the Sweat of My Brow in 1984 and It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song in 1986, establishing herself as a compassionate songwriter and singer.
“It’s been said that Hazel Dickens writes songs about two kinds of pain,” Battiata noted, “the kind you can fix, like economic injustice, and the kind you can’t, like heartbreak and death.” This unflinching look at the realities of life endears her to fans and separates her from most contemporary country artists. She has performed in Europe, Canada, Cuba, and throughout the United States, and she has inspired numerous female bluegrass singers from Laurie Lewis to Alison Brown to Alison Krauss. Although she has recorded infrequently since the 1980s, she continues to play a number of live shows each year. “Her music reflects a universal and powerful theme,” wrote Amy Feuerbach of Virginia Tech University, “which captures the heart of her listeners and unites them in the common experiences of life and the universal struggle for dignity.”
(With Alice Gerrard) Hazel & Alice, Rounder, 1973.
Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, Rounder, 1981.
By the Sweat of My Brow, Rounder, 1984.
It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, Rounder, 1986.
(With Alice Gerrard) Pioneering Women of Bluegrass, Smithsonian/Folkways, 1996.
Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, Crown Publishers, 1993.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Washington Post, June 24, 2001, p. W8.
“Hazel Dickens,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=Bnsrc286c05na (November 27, 2001).
“Hazel Dickens,” Virginia Tech University, http://www.english.vt.edurappalach/writersM/protestsongs.html (November 27, 2001).
—Ronnie D. Lankford Jr.
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