Hazel Dickens

June 1, 1935- April 22, 2011

Songwriter for the Other America

By Ross Altman

Photo by Steve Robb

It's Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song

Hazel Dickens was born on June 1, 1935 in Mercer County, West Virginia, and died on Earth Day, April 22, 2011, at a hospice in Washington, DC, from complications of pneumonia. She was the voice of the hardest hit poor people in the coalmining region of the country, a folk singer who wrote and sang songs like Don’t Put Her Down (You Helped Put Her There), and They’ll Never Keep Us Down.

She sang for folk socialist Michael Harrington once described as belonging to “The Other America,” outside of the middle class, or even of middle class aspirations. They belonged proudly to the working class, what the IWW used to call wage slaves, those who barely entered the consciousness of most Americans before Michael Harrington’s friend Bobby Kennedy went down to Appalachia and brought a camera crew with him, to shine a bright light on Americans who had long ago been forgotten and consigned to the dark underbelly of the American nightmare, for whom there was no way out and no way up.

It was for these people, white, black and brown, that LBJ finally declared his War on Poverty. It was on their behalf that Hazel Dickens sang her heart out and wrote her hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people.

She started her recording career in 1965, one year after LBJ declared "War on Poverty," and while she ignored the musical revolution going on around her, mostly up north at the Newport Folk Festival and out west at the Monterey Pop Festival, she was a true revolutionary in terms of the world she was committed to changing—the world of intractable poverty identified with Harlan County, Kentucky and the small mining towns in her home state of West Virginia.

She minced no words in songs like Cold Blooded Murder about the assassination of United Mine Workers executive Jock Yablonski, “Well, it’s cold blooded murder, friends, I’m talking about. Now who’s gonna stand up? Lord, who’s gonna fight?” And she never succumbed to sentimental braggadocio at the heart of commercial country music, where one could make a fortune by being “proud to be a coal-miner’s daughter” so long as one never accused the mine owners of murder.

Hazel Dickens, though at first regarded as a bluegrass singer, came out of the clear tradition of protest folk—the same tradition that nurtured labor troubadour Joe Hill, Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie, and coal miner singing organizers Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogan Gunning and Florence Reece. Mike Seeger introduced Hazel to her first singing partner—his wife Alice Gerrard. Together they recorded two albums for Folkways Records. They would later record for Arhoolie Records and Rounder Records, until Hazel went solo in 1982 and made one of her most important albums—They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women Coal Mining Songs, which was produced by Guy and Candie Carawan at the Highlander Center for Education and Research as a part of their on-going effort to bring music and social justice together. That too is on Rounder.

But though often categorized as a feminist songwriter (which was certainly accurate, as far as it went), Dickens nonetheless had no qualms about recording with men too, including Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz—two of the founding members of The New Lost City Ramblers—and most significantly, coal miner ballad singer Nimrod Workman, who like Hazel Dickens stood out for the sheer bedrock honesty of his singing. They were the heart and soul of real country music, though Nashville’s network of country music radio stations wouldn’t touch either one of them with a lap steel guitar.

But that didn’t stop some of Nashville’s finest and best known singers from recording her songs, including Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Emmy Lou Harris recorded her and Alice Gerrard’s arrangement of the Carter Family’s Hello Stranger and Naomi and Wynonna Judd were inspired to perform together by Hazel and Alice’s recording of The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile).

Indeed, it’s no secret that Hazel Dickens grew up on country music, both the commercial variety of the 1950s and the harder-edged folk country of her coal mining forbears like Sarah Ogan Gunning, who wrote I Hate the Capitalist System. Dickens voice recaptured the sense of outrage at injustice that sparked the great Florence Reece (author of Which Side Are You On) and Aunt Molly Jackson (I Am a Union Woman), while her musical arrangements leaned more towards Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.

Nor did she shy away from the coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn. To Dickens it was all a part of her musical palette, and she drew from her sources what she needed to create her unique vocal style—part folk, part country, part bluegrass, and all Hazel. She even recorded a Bob Dylan song, Only a Hobo, which she recognized derived from a song she had grown up on, Only a Miner, and brought it kicking and screaming back into a full on old-time string band arrangement, far from Bob’s gravelly early Woody Guthrie vocal, guitar and harmonica.

Hazel Dickens' involvement with both the music and struggles of the coal miner was part of her birthright. The eighth of eleven children, her brothers were West Virginia coal miners, though her father himself was a preacher who also hauled timber for a living. In his spare time, however, he played banjo well enough that folklorists recorded him. The twin streams of music and mining flowed through Hazel’s veins into a river of song. Her music became the soundtrack for two documentaries on coal mining, Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. and John Sayles Matewan. Later on, Hazel was featured on camera as the informant in the fictionalized portrait of early field collector of Appalachian music  Olive Dame Campbell in the movie Songcatcher, which in real life led to the publication of Campbell and Cecil Sharp's classic text English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. All Hazel had to do in that movie was to recapture the voice and look of an original Appalachian ballad singer from 1916, when this American and  British folklorist first got the idea to search out British folk songs in the hills and hollers of Kentucky and West Virginia. I don’t think there is another singer in the country that could have really pulled it off.

That is why Hazel Dickens' music is timeless; her voice was dug out of the ground just like the coal of which she sang. No one else went as deep to get it—that elusive authenticity of true folk music. Like Justice Potter Stewart once said in another connection, you can’t define it, but you know it when you hear it. The National Endowment for the Arts presented her with the National Heritage Fellowship in 2008, the same year University of Illinois Press published her autobiography, Working Girl Blues.

I was lucky enough to hear her perform live once, in the Barn Folk Concert Series at UC Riverside, due to the extraordinary efforts of its founder, Dot Harris, who once told me, “If you can’t say something nice about a person, sit next to me.” Her husband, Bill Harris, was on the faculty in the English Department, and taught classes when Dot gave him time off from his real job, which was keeping the books and handling the finances of her always near desperate shoestring operation of running her folk concert series. Together they managed to keep it going for more than twenty years, until Bill passed away from Parkinson’s disease and Dot came down with Alzheimer’s.

Dot Harris came from North Carolina, and grew up amidst the same kind of poverty that afflicted Hazel Dickens, and inspired her songs. Accordingly, of all the wonderful folk singers Dot brought out to Riverside, including Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Mike Seeger and Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, cowboy ballad singer Glenn Ohrlin, and contemporary Wobbly U. Utah Phillips, none mattered to her as much as Hazel Dickens.

Photo by Earl Dotter

Coal Mining Women

But Dot couldn’t afford her because she refused to come all the way across the country without her band. Dot didn’t care about the band; she just wanted Hazel to sing her songs. But Hazel wouldn’t budge; she wouldn’t perform without her band. It took Dot Harris three years to raise the money to bring Hazel Dickens to UC Riverside, but bring her she did. And that is why I have signed copies of her records, including They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs.

Dot Harris can’t remember much of anything anymore, so I must remember it for her. Thanks to Dot, Hazel Dickens became a part of my life—not just a name and not just a voice on a record, but a tough-minded, strong-willed original woman and artist, who would not give a concert that was anything less than her best—and for that she needed her band. As her father once told her, “Nothing’s too good for the working class.”

And she also needed a most remarkable woman who would devote three years of her life to bringing one great American artist to a small community on the edge of the desert. Long live Hazel Dickens, and thank you, dear Dot Harris, for bringing her here.

The other America has lost their champion. Hazel Dickens was one of those irreplaceable voices we were lucky to have once. But we can listen to her records, and sing her songs.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com This Saturday, April 30, he will be performing at the Roots Fest on Adams in San Diego, with sets at 12:00 PM, 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM., where he will be singing Hazel Dickens’ song Don’t Put Her Down (You Helped Put Her There). On Sunday, May Day, Ross will be honored at Sunset Hall’s annual fundraiser at Paramount Studios. Call 323-660-5277 or email wendy@sunsethall.org for tickets and information.