Like virtually all in the folk music world, I was deeply saddened to learn that Hazel Dickens, the great Appalachian singer and songwriter, and pioneering woman of bluegrass, had passed away early today in a Washington, D.C. hospital where she was being treated for pneumonia.
Hazel’s importance cannot be underestimated. At a time when most of the artists coming into the folk music world were revivalists, she was a tradition-bearer, born and raised in “the green rolling hills of West Virginia,” who brought generations of authenticity to the songs she sang, and the songs she wrote, and the music she played.
In the mid-1960s, Hazel formed a duo with Alice Gerrard that fronted bluegrass bands as bandleaders and lead singers – which was very rare for the day. They recorded two LPs of bluegrass for Folkways in the ‘60s that were among the first bluegrass albums to feature women as leaders. When Smithsonian Folkways reissued the LPs on a single CD, they rightfully named it Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.
I first encountered Hazel and Alice in the early- or mid-‘70s at a folk festival – I think it was Mariposa – around the time that Rounder put out their masterpiece album, Hazel and Alice. That album of traditional and neo-traditional old-time Appalachian music, is one of the most important and influential folk music recordings of the past half-century.
Hazel went on to record another fine album with Alice, several solo albums, and several collaborations with other artists all of which I played enthusiastically over the years on the radio show.
I didn’t know Hazel very well, but enjoyed hearing her perform and chatting with her when our paths crossed at folk festivals over the years.
Art Menius, who knew Hazel much better than I did, said this in an e-mail this afternoon:
“The greatest takeaway for me with Hazel is her courage on all matters except flying and revealing her age. The courage to leave home in the hills for the industrial harshness of Baltimore a half century ago. The courage to play bass in the hostile male world of bluegrass. The courage to partner with Alice Gerrard and record bluegrass albums with male sidemen. The courage to write bluegrass songs that raised issues a lot of people would rather not discuss. The courage to be honest and confrontational. The courage to speak truth to power in her art and to keep alive the tradition of hillbilly radical singers like Sarah Ogun Gunning and Aunt Molly Jackson while working in a genre that had little model or precedent for that save for odds and ends like Vern & Ray's ‘To Hell With the People, To Hell With the Land.’ Hazel combined two of my passions -- hillbilly music and political art.”
“Well I paid the price for the leavin'
And this life I have is not one I thought I'd find.
Just let me live, love, let my cry, but when I go just let me die
Among the friends who'll remember when I'm gone.”
-Hazel Dickens, “West Virginia, My Home”
BTW, the line in quotation marks, “the green rolling hills of West Virginia,” is the title of, and a lyric from, a song written by Bruce (Utah) Phillips. Some of what's in that song accurately parallels Hazel's real life. The song's definitive version, with an added final verse, was on the Hazel and Alice album. --MR