I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Hazel Dickens. Odd that, because one can’t really hear Hazel Dickens without knowing you’ve heard Hazel Dickens. Her voice is one that isn’t confused with anyone else’s; if you’ve listened to Hazel, you know Hazel! When I say I know Hazel, if feel that I truly do know her. That is the power of her words and melodies- they communicate to the listener the experiences, convictions, and insights of a powerfully strong woman, one who has excelled within an industry dominated by men.
But it seems to me that I’ve always known Hazel Dickens, although I realize full well I haven’t. Most likely, I first ran across Hazel Dickens on a Rounder compilation album, maybe Blue Ribbon Bluegrass but more likely Hand Picked: 25 Years of Rounder Bluegrass. I do know that when I first got to witness Hazel live at a Calgary Folk Music Festival around ‘bout 1998, I was well-familiar with the woman, her music legacy, her activism, and her place within the bluegrass and folk music canons.
Most obviously, I come to the game late. I wasn’t in the Baltimore area during the golden years, when Hazel and Alice joined in at living room pickin’ parties. Heck, I wasn’t even born then, so don’t hold that against me. I’m not from a part of the world where I may have found Hazel playing in a dingy club or coffee house or at a festival with Mike Seeger. I’ve been aware of Hazel to purchase only one of her albums as it was released, a very engaging collection she did in the late 90s with Carol Elizabeth Jones and Ginny Hawker, Heart of a Singer. But, this isn’t about me; this is about Hazel. There are better folks than me to champion Hazel Dickens for the IBMA Hall of Fame, something I’ve been doing for the better part of a decade. So, why haven’t they?
Maybe they have, and I just don’t know about it. It was only about this time last year that the idea that I should take my campaign – which truly has consisted of little more than a signature line on outgoing e-mails- to have Hazel elected to the Hall of Fame to the next level even occurred to me. It was only recently that I realized almost another year had gone by and I’ve done little to further advance Hazel’s cause. Here we are in the midst of 2010 and Hazel Dickens doesn’t appear to be any closer to the IBMA Hall of Fame than she has been for the past many years. I’m at a loss to explain why.
I well realize that a limited number of inductees can be made annually if the honor is to retain its pedigree and prestige. I also realize that the gentlemen who have been honored in recent years are all well-known and revered within the business. I’m sure they were well-deserving, although I may disagree with the inclusion of select inductees. What I don’t understand is how someone who has done so much within bluegrass can continue to be overlooked? Further, how is it that among the 50 or so members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, the only women elected have been as members of the Carter and Lewis families? I can’t think of a more worthy female bluegrass performer, musician, songwriter, and spirit to be the first to go into the IBMA Hall of Fame under her own name than Hazel Dickens.
Don’t tell me Hazel Dickens isn’t a bluegrass performer. While her music has straddled various genres, what Hazel has always come back to can only be labeled bluegrass. Hazel’s history in bluegrass has been well-documented in various places, not the least of which by Neil Rosenberg and especially Alice Gerrard in the liner notes for the 1996 reissue of Pioneering Women of Bluegrass. Within that same set, Hazel shares her recollections of the duos earliest days making bluegrass music. Information about Hazel is commonly known within most realms of the bluegrass world.
We know she left her home in West Virginia while still a teen, moving to work in the factories and stores of Baltimore. We know that she used her early experiences to provide the realism readily apparent in her songs, be it the emotional turmoil of leaving home (“Mama’s Hands”), the longing of home from away (“West Virginia, My Home”), and a sense of place that few writers could capture (“Hills of Home.”) Is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the “Working Girl Blues?” Within “West Virginia, My Home” Hazel captures in ten syllables, seven straight-forward words what others have struggled to communicate in entire essays: “I can sure remember where I come from.”
We know that she has long been involved in expressing the struggles and lives of miners in any number of ways, not the least of which are her songs including “Black Lung” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” to name but three. She came to tell these songs in the most natural of ways, having had brothers and family working in the deep, dark mines of West Virginia.
Importantly, we know that she was part of the migration of mountain music to the eastern seaboard, one of thousands who moved from rural communities in search of work and bringing with them the music of their home counties. She championed the music, keeping it at the fore of not only her own life but communicating a relevancy with which the urban community could connect.
That she has written some of the finest bluegrass songs is without challenge. These songs have advanced the cause of women and the working poor in immeasurable ways, bringing strength and dignity to places and circumstances where such was often in short supply. Hazel has never shied away from subject matter that some would avoid, be they the protagonists of “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” the conditions of the mines (“Mannington Mine Disaster,”) or detailing the impact of miner organization in “The Yablonski Murder.”
But Hazel has been able to reveal her softer side as successfully. In “You’ll Get No More of Me,” she sings:
You wrecked my heart like a cruel winter storm
Bending my branches so low
Oh your wayward heart and your tortured soul
Leave no memory worthy to hold.
Okay, perhaps ‘softer’ is not the best word choice- how about vulnerable? But even then, she is no one’s patsy: no one is going to walk over her heart.
In what Tim Stafford has called ‘One of the best songs I’ve ever heard,” Hazel sings,
Just a few old memories going way back in time
Well I can hardly remember I don’t know why I’m crying
I can’t understand it well I’m surprised at myself
First thing tomorrow morning I’ll clean off that shelf. (“A Few Old Memories”)
She has spoken openly and honestly of the struggles she and hers have experienced. She knows there is no shame in saying she has been poor, has required assistance. Her thoughts on war are revealed in “Will Jesus Wash the Blood Stains from Your Hands.” She is unabashedly pro-labor, a position revealed not only in song but action. This activist aspect of Hazel is well documented in the film Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song and in the tours done with Anne Romaine. Also in that production, Laurie Lewis places Hazel with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt.
Hazel Dickens has left a legacy in song, one that has been compounded by her live presence. I’ve been fortunate to experience Hazel in concert on three occasions, and each time she has impressed me a little bit more.
As I stated earlier, I saw Hazel for the first time in (I think) 1998 when she and Alice made an appearance with what appeared to be a pick-up band featuring Ron Block. I tripped across their side-stage rehearsal minutes before their set, and I knew I was witnessing something powerful and special. The details are lost to time, but I recall sitting transfixed for almost an hour as the ladies held sway over a crowd comprised largely of folks who had known little to nothing of what they were going to experience with these pioneering women of bluegrass.
I next saw Hazel at Wintergrass in 2003. She filled the First Baptist Church with a band led by Tim Stafford. Although the fidelity is dicey at best, my recording of that set is one of my most treasured. The power of her voice is never in dispute.
I most recently saw Hazel at Hardly Strictly this past October in San Francisco. Again, the hard-singing (Alison Krauss’ description) of Hazel came through loud and clear. What resonated this time was not just the power of the songs and the strength of the voice, but the humor of the woman. She was as vibrant on this appearance as she had been more than a decade earlier.
On each of these occasions, the players knew to stay out of her way and let Hazel do her thing. She sings. Whether a high tenor while harmonizing or singing lead, Hazel Dickens is a bluegrass singer without peer. Certainly other female singers have had more success in the bluegrass field. Hazel has never been awarded an IBMA award for her singing, but just ask those who have- Laurie Lewis, Lynn Morris, Alison Krauss, Dale Ann Bradley- and they’ll tell you that with Hazel what you get is the real deal. Some call it piercing, some call it raw. What I hear is controlled emotion within a style of singing that lacks pretension or commercial consideration.
All who have attempted the chore understand that leading a bluegrass band is a challenge. Hazel’s situation is a bit different in that she hasn’t employed a long-standing band to back her on extended tours or even regularly scheduled shows. Despite this, Hazel always has a tremendous band with her no matter where she appears. If one is judged by the company they keep, one has to realize the esteem in which Hazel is held when folks like Dudley Connell, Marshall Wilborn, David McLaughlin, Ronnie Simpkins, Richard Underwood, Jack Leiderman, and Barry Mitterhoff are eager to appear alongside Hazel. Not speaking for those gentlemen, I’d be shocked if any of them didn’t feel it was an honor to share a stage with Hazel.
I’m assured on good authority that in the past it was a challenge for anyone to hold a group of players together in a bluegrass collective, whether a continuing, professional outfit or a free-flowing band of regulars. Considering the world in which Hazel found herself in the mid- to late-50s, I imagine the difficulty was magnified for a female. Yet, Hazel (along with as well as independent of Alice Gerrard) managed this feat while playing in and around the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area.
Through my limited travels and scattered writings, I’ve been fortunate to meet some of the finest ambassadors of our music- Dale Ann Bradley, Lynn Morris, Randy Graham, Rhonda Vincent, Greg Cahill, and David Davis, to mention but a few. I’ve also been privileged to speak with Hazel on a couple occasions, and I can attest that our music has no kinder or more natural ambassador. Her knowledge of the music is without limit and she is generous, giving of her time and spirit. Additionally, Hazel has been performing her bluegrass music to non-bluegrass audiences for a very long time. Whether at labor rallies, demonstrations promoting social justice, fundraisers, or at folk music festivals, Hazel has exposed our music to people who may never have before heard the music. And don’t overlook her appearance in feature films including Matewan and Songcatcher; I’m sure I’m not the only one who has squealed in surprise, “That’s Hazel!”
A member of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, inducted by Alison Krauss, Hazel Dickens has been honored by the IBMA in the past. She received the IBMA Award of Merit/Distinguished Achievement Award in 1993 and was recognized for the 1996 Song of the Year for Lynn Morris’ recording of “Mama’s Hands.” In 2001, Hazel was awarded a Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Since I started down this road of formally advocating for Hazel’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame, I’ve become aware of a belief within some quarters that Hazel Dickens must only be elected to the Hall as part of Hazel & Alice. I had wondered if the Hazel & Alice vs Hazel situation may exist, and I don’t quite understand the position. Alice Gerrard, influential on Hazel, without doubt, and her partner for many years, has concentrated very ably on producing and advocating old-time sounds for the past thirty-plus years. When I think of bluegrass I don’t think of Alice, and I don’t mean that as any type of slight toward her. She just went down a different path than did Hazel.
Hazel, on the other hand, has stayed solidly within the bluegrass fold. My suggestion and my efforts are to have Hazel Dickens elected to the Hall of Fame as an individual, in part because of the work she did as a ‘pioneering woman of bluegrass’ with Alice Gerrard. Hazel and Alice- essentially- were a duo for only a portion of Hazel’s long and distinguished career in bluegrass, recording four albums over the course of a decade. And don’t forget the very excellent Stranger Creek Singers album. Since then Hazel has recorded three additional and brilliant albums, with another slated for release shortly.
I don’t expect this little rambling piece to sway the bluegrass community. I do hope it will cause some discussion when the IBMA Hall of Fame nominating committee next meets. After more than 50 years as a leading light in bluegrass, we all know what Hazel Dickens means to the music; if we don’t, it is shame on us. As she approaches her 75th birthday, it is time for the professional bluegrass community to do what they have too frequently neglected to do- bring flowers while the pioneers are living.
Nominate and then elect Hazel Dickens to the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame this year.