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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss