Hazel Dickens : It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song

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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.

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 hazelin the Baltimore-Washington area bluegrass and folk music scene during the 1960s.

“I didn’t intentionally reject that part of my life,” Dickens told Terry Gross. “Since some of the mines closed down there, there wasn’t a lot of work, which meant there was even less work for women, because women usually did … factory or waitress work.”

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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. Hazel & Alice broke up in 1976 and Dickens pursued a solo career where her music and songwriting became more political.

An autobiographical song Ms. Dickens wrote in the early 1980s, “Mama’s Hand,” about leaving a mining town with “one old paper bag full of hand-me-downs,” was named bluegrass song of the year in 1996, after it appeared on an album by the Lynn Morris Band.

Ms. Dickens released a handful of albums during her lifetime — including two with Gerrard and three solo efforts — but she became a favorite performer at folk and bluegrass festivals and exerted a strong influence on such later singers as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and the Judds.

Dickens was able to write such timeless tunes because of her appreciation for traditional music. She was an avid student of rural forms. In her teens, she tackled country music at the Baltimore Honky Tonks. With Mike Seeger, she performed pre-bluegrass Appalachian music. With Alice Gerrard, she dominated the bluegrass field. As a solo artist, she returned to stripped-down folk. Dickens was not only interested in styles, though. She 220px-Hazel_Dickenswas also a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist, perhaps best known as a guitar player. She employed a delicate Maybelle Carter flat-picking style and, as a result, many people are surprised to learn that she was the upright bass player in Hazel & Alice. She had a keen understanding of traditional American music because she learned it inside and out. As a result, she brought many of traditional Americana’s nuances to her self-penned songs. By steeping herself in tradition and craft, Dickens created a new old sound that reverberates to this day.

Dickens was featured in a number of films, including SongcatcherMatewan, about the West Virginia mine wars; and the Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A., for which she wrote original music. She was herself the subject of a documentary, Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2001).

She received an honorary doctorate of humanities in 1998 from Shepherd University. In 2001, Dickens won the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor given to folk artists in the United States. In 2002, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance. She was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

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