Hazel Dickens, 1935-2011
Her high, lonesome sound that touched so many could only have been born from strife and fight-back. Singer/guitarist Hazel Dickens's sound was probably about as high and lonesome as one can get. The soundtrack of Harlan County USA introduced her to many outside the country home she remained a part of. Dickens didn't just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them. Her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads, embedded her to the cause.
She was born on June 1, 1935 in Montcalm, West Virginia, one of the small towns in Appalachian coal country. Her father was an amateur banjo player who worked as a truck driver for the mines and ran a Primitive Baptist Church each Sunday, where Hazel first began singing. The devotional songs eventually melded with the mountain tunes and ballads, creating her unique personal style. Bearing a rough, at times coarse timbre, her voice reflected the broken topography about her as well as the pains of poverty for her family of 13 living in a 3-room shack.
At age 16, Dickens moved to Baltimore where she encountered Mike Seeger and the fledgling folk scene. Seeger, working alongside his parents Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, began performing with the Dickens family trio, but it was Hazel Dickens's association with Seeger's wife, Alice Gerrard, that made the most impact. The duet of Hazel and Alice recorded original compositions and explored feminist archetypes in Appalachian song.
Dickens raised such issues as the need for equal pay for women workers, while fighting for these off stage. Among the titles she penned were "Working Girl Blues" and "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There." She also composed the noted "Black Lung." Like Aunt Mollie Jackson before her, Dickens was able to capture the struggle of the moment in song and this was most evident in her on-screen performances in Matewan, Song Catcher, and Harlan County USA.
A clear heir to the Appalachian stylings of Aunt Mollie Jackson and Sarah Ogan, Dickens was a respected and featured singer at folk festivals for decades. Since the 1970s, Dickens performed with a wide array of musicians, including Emmy Lou Harris, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash. In 2007 she was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Dickens was active recently when she attended the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.
Dickens died of complications of pneumonia in Washington, DC on April 22. In the blackened crawlspaces of West Virginia's mines the lament was a deafening silence as the mountain peaks seemed to bow in solemn reverence.
John Pietaro is a musician, writer and labor organizer from New York City (theCulturalWorker.blogspot.com).