Hazel Dickens 1935 –2011
An Obituary by John Pietaro
The high lonesome sound that touched so many, so deeply, could only have been born of both strife and fight-back in equal proportions. Singer/guitarist Hazel Dickens’ sound was probably about as high and lonesome as one got. The soundtrack of “Harlan County USA” introduced her to the many outside of the country home she remained a visceral part of, even long after she’d physically moved on. 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.
She was born on June 1, 1935 in Montcalm, West Virginia, one of the faceless towns dotting 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. Here was where Hazel first began singing, unaccompanied out of necessity and the laws of tradition. But the devotional songs melded with the mountain tunes and ballads, creating a unique personal style. Bearing a rough, at times coarse timber, her voice eagerly reflected the broken topography about her as well as the pains of poverty in her midst. In a family of thirteen residing in a three-room shack, the music was far from distant symbolism for her.
At age 16 Dickens relocated to Baltimore where she encountered Mike Seeger on the still fledgling folk scene. Seeger, working alongside his parents Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger in the Library of Congress Archive of American Folksong, began performing with the Dickens family trio, but it was Hazel’s association with Seeger’s wife Alice Gerrard that offered notable area for impact on the music. The duet of Hazel & Alice recorded original compositions and deeply explored the feminist archetypes in Appalachian song. Dickens was sure to not only raise issues such as the need for equal pay for women workers, but to actively fight for these on and 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”, which called on the miners’ plight back home. 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 celebrated films such as “Matewan” and “Song Catcher” and her work on the above noted “Harlan County USA”. The union cause was her cause and it lived anew each time she conjured a topical song set to a melody that sounded as old as the ages.
A clear heir to the Appalachian stylings of Aunt Mollie Jackson and Sarah Ogan, Dickens became a respected figure and was a featured singer at folk festivals for decades. Since the 1970s, Dickens had 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 as recent as last month when she was seen attending the South By Southwest Festival in Austin.
Hazel 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 http:TheCulturalWorker.blogspot.com
--THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN "THE NATION" MAGAZINE--