Old-time and bluegrass singer, songwriter, bass player, and guitarist Hazel Dickens died in Washington, DC, on April 22. Among the most influential country songwriters of her generation, she was known not only for her artistry, but also for her staunch, lifelong advocacy for workers, women, and Appalachia. She was a National Heritage Fellow, recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award, and member of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
Dickens was born in Mercer County, West Virginia, in 1925. (After her passing it was reported in major media that she had been born in 1935, but her relatives and public records confirm the earlier date.) She barely survived her first months of life, refusing to nurse, and was given up on by a family doctor. Her mother, unwilling to accept the harsh prognosis, managed to keep her nourished on a diet of milk-soaked crackers, which saved the baby’s life. The men in her family worked in the coal mines or at other jobs associated with the mining industry. Her father, H. N., was also a Primitive Baptist preacher, whose singing of unaccompanied hymns she greatly admired. When there were no members of the church around to observe him and disapprove, H. N. played the banjo as well.
Dickens and her ten siblings grew up listening to country music on the radio, and making their own music. Family and friends encouraged her talent for singing—although on one occasion, in elementary school, she reportedly scandalized her teacher by favoring the class with her rendition of “I’d Die Before I’d Cry Over You.”
Like countless Appalachian men and women throughout the twentieth century, Dickens left the mountains in search of work. She followed her older sister Velvie to Baltimore, where she worked as a housekeeper and waitress, and in a canning factory. In the 1950s, the Baltimore-Washington area was coming into its own as an important hub of bluegrass music. Dickens performed with her brothers (much of the family had by then relocated to Baltimore) at area bars and other venues, singing, playing bass, and being the spokeswoman for their band.
It was during this period that she met fellow musician (and future Old-Time Herald founder and editor) Alice Gerrard. Hazel and Alice began to perform together, becoming two of the earliest, and most influential, women in bluegrass music. Their first record, Who’s That Knocking, was released in 1965 by Folkways Records. They would go on to make three more records together, Strange Creek Singers (with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz), Won’t You Come and Sing for Me, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and Hazel and Alice. Gerrard and Dickens toured widely as a duo until 1976.
In the 1980s, she released four solo albums on the Rounder label, Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, By the Sweat of My Brow, It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, and A Few Old Memories. She also recorded the 1993 album Heart of a Singer with Carol Elizabeth Jones and Ginny Hawker. In 1987 she appeared in the movie Matewan, about the 1920 coal mining conflict and shootout in Mingo County, West Virginia. In 2000, Dickens appeared in Songcatcher, a film about a ballad collector in Appalachia. Her singing was also prominently featured in the documentaries Harlan County, USA, Coalmining Women, and Black Lung.
Dickens’ recognition as a country songwriter grew throughout her career, with the popularity of such original songs as “West Virginia, Oh My Home,” “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” “Black Lung,” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” Many of her songs reflected her passionate interest in social justice, particularly the wellbeing of coal miners. Her compositions have been recorded by Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and numerous other leading country artists.
Dickens was laid to rest at Roselawn Memorial Gardens in Princeton, West Virginia.
In a coming issue of the Old-Time Herald, Alice Gerrard will share her reminiscences of the life and music of Hazel Dickens.