Thursday, 4/28/11

Yesterday we heard music of “nostalgia” and “homesickness,” of “loneliness” and “separation,” from Mali. Today it comes from West Virginia.

Hazel Dickens, singer, songwriter
June 1, 1925-April 22, 2011

Live, with Ginny Hawker, vocals, and Tracy Schwartz, fiddle

“West Virginia My Home” (H. Dickens), Kentucky (Morehead State University), 2008

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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I Love To Sing The Old Songs” (H. Dickens), 2008

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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lagniappe

Hazel Dickens, a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music, died on Friday in Washington. She was 75.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Ken Irwin, her longtime friend and the founder of Rounder Records, her label for more than four decades.

Ms. Dickens’s initial impact came as a member of Hazel and Alice, a vocal and instrumental duo with Alice Gerrard, a classically trained singer with a passion for the American vernacular music on which Ms. Dickens was raised. Featuring Ms. Dickens on upright bass and Ms. Gerrard on acoustic guitar, Hazel and Alice toured widely on the folk and bluegrass circuits during the 1960s and ’70s, captivating audiences with their bold, forceful harmonies and their empathetic approach to songs of struggle and heartbreak.

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The influence of the staunchly traditional duo extended beyond bluegrass to commercial country music. Hazel and Alice’s arrangement of the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” became the blueprint for Emmylou Harris’s version of the song, and their adaption of “The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)” inspired Naomi Judd, then a single mother in rural Kentucky, to start singing with her daughter Wynonna.

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Hazel Jane Dickens was born June 1, 1935, in Mercer County, W.Va. One of 11 children, she grew up in a family whose survival depended on the coal industry. Her father, a Primitive Baptist preacher and a forceful singer, hauled timber to feed the household. Her brothers were miners and one of her sisters cleaned house for a supervisor at the mines. The music they sang in church and heard on the radio, particularly the music of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, offered one of their few diversions.

She moved to Baltimore in the early 1950s and worked in factories there. City living was hardly more prosperous than the life she’d known in the coal fields of Mercer County, but it did afford her exposure to the larger social and political world. She met and started playing music with the singer and folklorist Mike Seeger, who eventually introduced her to Ms. Gerrard.

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A reluctant feminist role model, Ms. Dickens said she was originally scared to write about issues like sexism and the oppression of women.

“I can remember the first time I sang ‘Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here There,’ ” she said in her 1999 No Depression interview. “I was at a party standing in the middle of all these men. It was here in Washington. Bob Siggins was playing banjo, and when I got done, everyone just looked at each other, and Bob said, ‘That’s a nice song, but I won’t be able to sing it.’ And I said, ‘Of course you can.’ ”

“We were writing about our own experience,” she explained. “They were things we needed to say.”

—Bill Frisksics-Warren, New York Times, 4/23/11