Hazel Dickens: Pioneering bluegrass singer whose songs championed the working class

The singer and songwriter Hazel Dickens was one of the women who changed the face of American country music. From this petite, wiry frame came an unexpectedly powerful voice. She sang harrowing tales about the lives of working-class Americans, the human cost of capitalism – particularly in the mining industry – in songs such as "Black Lung", "Coal Mining Woman", "The Yablonski Murder", the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County, USA (1976) and the coal-strike feature film Matewan (1987). She sang old folk songs, honoured ancestors of choice like Sarah Ogan Gunning, Nimrod Workman and Florence Reece – source of the strident anthem "Which Side Are you On?" – in "Freedom's Disciple (Working-Class Heroes)", as well as singing women's anthems like "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There".

With Alice Gerrard, she shook up and transformed that good ol' boys' preserve of bluegrass, a music that the folklorist Alan Lomax once called "folk music with overdrive". They inaugurated what the music historian and promoter Art Menius hailed as "the feminization of bluegrass". No wonder, then, that Dickens acted as a beacon for the likes of Emmylou Harris, The Judds, Alison Krauss, Lynn Morris and Linda Ronstadt. Or that their 1996 retrospective for Smithsonian Folkways was aptly named Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.

Born in Montcalm in the Appalachian coal country of southern West Virginia, close to its border with Virginia, in 1935, she was the eighth of six boys and five girls born to Sarah Aldora Dickens and Hillary Dickens. A sickly child, she chronicled her bond to her mother and the close calls of her childhood in "Carry Me Across the Mountain" and "Mama's Hand". Her authoritarian father logged and cut timber for the mines by day and preached for the Primitive Baptist church – the predestinationist tenets of which she later dismissed as abasing the consequences of one's actions, but whose hymnal, with songs like "Beautiful Hills of Galilee", remained with her.

She took to singing early. Her father, a drop-thumb style banjoist, adored listening to country music radio stations. His daughter absorbed this music, too, later crediting Carter Family broadcasts beamed from across the Mexican border as the model for her guitar style.

The 1950s proved especially hard in the region, with industrialised strip-mining technologies causing ever more people to be laid off and forcing workers to migrate. Hazel was 16 when she first tried to go it alone in Baltimore. It was the bright-lights destination of choice for the unemployed and the stuff of broken dreams. Gram Parsons & the Fallen Angels sang Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard's "Streets of Baltimore"; she remembered the "No dogs or hillbillies" sign. Undaunted, she returned to "Little Appalachia" in 1954, working as a housekeeper, waitress and at the Continental Can factory.

For all that, for a young woman who had left school after the seventh grade, Baltimore was where her education proper began. She listened attentively, recalled Bill C Malone in their co-authored Working Girl Blues – The Life & Music of Hazel Dickens (2008), especially to a Jewish social worker and fiddle player called Alyse Taubman. In May 1954 a Korean War conscientious objector called Mike Seeger, a preternaturally gifted musician two years her senior, was assigned to work at the Mt Wilson Tuberculosis Sanatorium, where her brother Robert was a patient. Putting feelers out, Seeger discovered that Robert played mandolin in a pre-bluegrass country style. It led to Seeger, Hazel and her brothers Robert and Arnold launching themselves into public performance. Seeger and Dickens would play together for decades, for example in the Strange Creek Singers.

After her marriage to Joe Cohen failed, she settled in Washington DC in 1969. It was the city where she would write many of her most important songs, like "Black Lung" and "Working Girl Blues" ("When the Lord made the working girl, He made the blues"). She eventually died in a hospice there.

"I had," she asserted, "one thing that most of the good old boys didn't have. I had a mind. I had every song that you could think of in my head, and they didn't. People were always asking me for the words of songs, and I could sing them authentically, just the way they were supposed to be sung."

A long-touted project of her songs, helmed by Todd Phillips, featuring Mary Chapin Carpenter, Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Joan Osborne, Madeleine Peyroux and Linda Ronstadt remains impending.

Hazel June Dickens, musician, singer and songwriter: born Montcalm, West Virginia 1 June 1935; married 1965 Joe Cohen (divorced 1968); died Washington DC 22 April 2011.

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