Hazel Dickens Passes

Hazel Dickens

Renowned Appalachian vocal stylist Hazel Dickens has died at age 75.

The West Virginia native was noted for her strongly feminist song lyrics, support of coal miners and participation in bluegrass and folk-music groups such as The Strange Creek Singers and Hazel & Alice. She recorded for the Rounder, Folkways and Arhoolie record labels.

The Hazel & Alice arrangement of The Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” served as the template for Emmylou Harris’s recording of the song. The duo’s recording of “The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)” inspired Naomi & Wynonna Judd to form their musical partnership. Dickens appeared with The Judds during one Fan Fair concert in the 1990s.

Her songs were featured in the Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County U.S.A., and she appeared in the 1987 coal-mining movie Matewan.

Raised as one of 11 children in rural West Virginia, Hazel Dickens was the daughter of a preacher. Her brothers were coal miners. Seeking a better life, Dickens moved to Baltimore in 1954. She worked in factories, but via her performances in the bluegrass bands The Pike County Boys and The Greenbriar Boys, she came to the attention of singer and folklorist Mike Seeger.

She played bass and sang in Seeger’s Strange Creek Singers bluegrass band, which also included Alice Gerrard on guitar and vocals. The group began recording in the mid-1960s.

The two women formed a bluegrass/folk duo and began recording for Folkways around this same time. A shift to Rounder resulted in their best known LPs, 1973’s Hazel & Alice and 1975’s Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. These included the feisty Dickens “signature” songs “Working Girl Blues,” “My Better Years” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.”

Dickens launched her solo recording career with 1980’s Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, also on Rounder. It featured her blue-collar anthem “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” which was one of the songs featured in Harlan County U.S.A. The 1982 LP It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song included her striking composition “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands.” The punk band X subsequently revived this tune.

The Hazel Dickens song “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me” has been recorded by Hot Rize, Delia Bell, Kate Brislin, High Atmosphere and other bluegrass acts. Cherryholmes and The Burns Sisters have recorded “Working Girl Blues.” The Johnson Mountain Boys repopularized “My Better Years,” and New Riders of the Purple Sage recorded “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” Laurie Lewis, The Lynn Morris Band, Bobby Osborne, James King, Dolly Parton, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Kathy Mattea and Cathy Fink are among the others who have recorded Hazel Dickens songs.

In 1994, Dickens became the first woman to receive the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Award of Merit. In 2008, The National Endowment for the Arts presented her with its National Heritage Award, and Alison Krauss inducted her into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Her autobiography, Working Girl Blues, was published by the University of Illinois Press later that same year.

Hazel Dickens died at a Washington D.C. hospice on Friday, April 22. from complications of pneumonia.

 

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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