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Thursday, May 19, 2011

In Her Own Words

On the morning of April 22, bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens passed away from complications from pneumonia. Her clear and powerful voice challenged the then male-dominated world of bluegrass music, and unflinchingly drew attention to the struggles of the working class.

Born in West Virginia in 1935 to a coal mining family, her upbringing would influence her music for the rest of her life. Hazel grew up singing with her family (she was the eighth child of eleven). With her father, she and her siblings would sing hymns. When she and her brothers and sisters sang on their own, it was the country songs that played on the radio. Beating on bucket lids and playing a comb with a piece of paper wrapped around it, she and her siblings would sing different parts. Sometimes they would sneak out to dances at other people's houses.

It was difficult to find work in her hometown after many of the mines closed down. Options were especially few for women. When she was 16, she followed one of her sisters north to Baltimore to work in a factory. More members of her family would eventually join them. It was in the Baltimore area that Hazel began playing music outside the home with her family and Mike Seeger, whom her brother had met while receiving treatment for tuberculosis at the Veterans Administration hospital. They would travel around the region to country music parks and contests, and played at a few bars. Once Seeger left to form the New Lost City Ramblers, Hazel played bass with a few bands, but found the harassment on the part of the male-dominated scene difficult to deal with (at one point, she was chased around the room by a drunken fiddle player). She later wrote "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There" as a result of these experiences.

Hazel accompanied both Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger on road trips throughout Appalachia to collect and record traditional music. The photographs featured here (from the Ralph Rinzler Papers) were taken around 1960 while on a trip to record Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. They are pictured on the porch of Sophronie Miller Greer, a neighbor of Watson's. Greer and her grandchildren surround Ralph and Hazel as they play. Earlier that day, they had recorded Greer singing "The Triplett Tragedy," a ballad written about the murder of her own husband. Hazel admitted that she was amused by Rinzler and Seeger's enthusiasm for collecting old songs ("Why would anybody want this old stuff?" she remembered thinking at the time), but years later she came to understand the music was more than just a bunch of old songs, it had historical and cultural importance. She tried to learn more of the old songs from her own father before they were lost with him, but at that point his voice had deteriorated, and she was only able to collect fragments.

She eventually made friends and moved in with a group of people involved in the burgeoning folk music community that was blooming around the Baltimore-Washington area. They often hosted house parties where every floor had a cluster of guests playing old-time, bluegrass, and folk music. Hazel became a familiar voice at these gatherings. Reflecting on this time of her life, she said:

"I remember singing and playing all night long with anyone who wanted to sing with me. One city guy said, 'One thing I like about Hazel, she will sing with you no matter how bad you sing.' He didn't realize it was giving me a life. [In the men's bands] I was generally shunted aside. In this situation, I could be the star of the show."

It was at one of these house parties that she was introduced to Alice Gerrard, with whom she would form a historical musical partnership. In the liner notes to the Smithsonian Folkways reissue of Hazel and Alice's early recordings for Folkways (SFW 40065, Pioneering Women of Bluegrass), Gerrard remembers her husband, Jeremy Foster, saying to her, "There is this little girl with an incredibly big voice that you've got to meet."

The two women began performing together in 1962. Though they couldn't take too many jobs, Hazel had to work and Alice had children, Hazel found freedom in playing with Alice.

"It was not easy, having to practice over kids hollering...[but] I think that finally I found something that I could do [with the music]. And there weren't threatening people around...we could make our own decisions, making up our own arrangements as we went along, picking out our own songs and it was real exciting."

They were encouraged by Peter Siegel and Dave Grisman to record their music, and it became apparent that the only place where they would have total creative freedom was with Moses Asch at Folkways, whose only request was not to spend all of his money. In the reissue's liner notes, Hazel said of the recording, "I think this is one of the all-time historic records. To my knowledge, it was the first time that two women sat down and picked out a bunch of songs and had guts enough to stand behind what they picked out and say, 'We're not changing anything. You have to do it or else.'"

After cutting the record, they performed for the first time at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, where Asch watched from the front row.

Hazel went on to record and perform by herself and with others. She wrote many songs with powerful messages that drew attention to the hardships of working men and women. "Black Lung" was the first of these she wrote and performed, and she was nervous about how such a politically charged song would be received:

"And I looked up and there was Merle Travis and Mother Maybelle [Carter] and I was scared to death...It was from the gut. It was watching my oldest brother and two brothers-in-law die, it hadn't been too long. And after that I had two other brothers that died with lung disease that worked in the mines."

Dickens was also heavily involved with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She performed often at the Festival (about 15 times) and participated in the Working Americans program workshops and panels during its run in the 1970s. Her last Festival performance was with Alice Gerrard at the Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert on a beautiful summer evening in July 2010. I sat near the front and would periodically turn around and look at the hundreds of faces sitting enthralled by their harmonies.

All of us here at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage will remember Hazel for her warmth and tenacity, her ringing voice and her humor, her deep love for playing music. Many of the quotes and stories from this post were pulled from Kate Rinzler's 1996 interview with Hazel located in the Ralph Rinzler Papers. In the interview, she speaks candidly about her life and journey. I will remember Hazel Dickens in her own words.

"I tried singing popular style along with the hit parade, but I never could get any satisfaction out of singing that way. My heart was not in it...we were [playing music] for love...and also as a means of expression to alleviate some of the loneliness that we felt by being taken out of our culture, and the only thing of substance we had to bring was the music. And that's what we knew and that's what we loved and that's what we got together in these clusters of people to do."

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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