I was saddened yesterday to learn that Hazel Dickens has passed away—this being the the social media age, I learned this from a Tweet by folk songsters Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer. Although Ms Dickens was not known to as wide an audience as she deserved, it’s undeniable that she was a great country musician & in fact, a great woman.
Ms Dickens came from a West Virginia mining family & she was an activist & unapologetically pro-union; she was a talented songwriter who wrote feminist country songs such as the great “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There”; she was also a pioneer in opening up the fields of bluegrass & old-time music to women performers— Hazel Dickens was singing & playing bluegrass & what’s now called “old-timey” music back in the 1960s. At the time, she partnered with Mike Seeger’s wife, Alice Gerrard, & the two released five albums between 1965 & 1975. Hazel Dickens then embarked on a solo career which saw her release three albums in addition to a compilation, all on Rounder Records. A documentary titled Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, directed by Mimi Pickering, appeared in 2001, & Ms Dicken also appeared in John Sayles’ 1987 film Matewan, as well as Maggie Greenwald’s ’00 film Songcatcher. She also contributed to the soundtracks to four films: Harlan County U.S.A., Coalmining Women, Matewan & Black Lung.
It was difficult to pick just two videos to represent Hazel Dickens’ work. In the end, I decided on her cover of Edd Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo,” which shows her concern for mine workers & also displays her singing in a bluegrass setting, & her own composition, “Pretty Bird” (from the great 1973 Rounder release Hazel & Alice). This a capella performance is breathtaking in its beauty & soulfullness & shows the depth of Hazel Dickens’ power as a singer. It is one of my very favorite singing performances in any genre.
Fly away, Hazel Dickens.