100 Greatest Women, #85: Hazel Dickens

#85

Hazel Dickens

2008 Edition: New Entry

A coal miner’s daughter and sister, Hazel Dickens used her voice who cry out for justice for her brothers in the mine.

Dickens was born in 1925 in West Virginia, one of eleven children of a coal mining family. She learned music from her banjo-playing father, who supplemented his mining income as a truck driver and a Baptist minister.  Their desperate poverty led to a move to Baltimore, where a young Hazel soon embedded herself into the city’s burgeoning folk music scene.  She formed a band with Mike Seeger and her brothers, and supported Joan Baez as a bass player when she played dates in the region.

Teaming up with Seeger’s wife, Alice Gerrard, Dickens truly found her voice.  Their shared interest in roots music inspired them to track down forgotten songs at the Library of Congress, and they released a series of albums together before parting in 1973.  Dickens then kicked off a solo career that would be as significant on the movie screen as it was on the bluegrass circuit. She contributed several songs to the Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A, and would go on to contribute to later films such as Coalmining Women, Matawan, and Songcatcher.

The eighties would be the peak of her solo career, as she released a trio of critically acclaimed albums for Rounder RecordsHer music of the time was defined by a political and socially conscious perspective, with a particular focus on the plight of non-unionized coal miners. Her raw approach to such topics were exemplified by her eulogy for her brother, “Black Lung,” and the rousing, “They’ll Never Keep Us Down.”

In 1994, she became the first woman to receive the Merit Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and in 2001, she received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. That same year, a documentary on her life and work was released that shared the title of one of her strongest albums: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song. She published her powerful autobiography, Working Girl Blues, in 2008, which was co-written by Bill Malone.

In 2011, Dickens passed away at age 85, due to complications from pneumonia. Her legacy still lives on in many forms, one of which is the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival in San Francisco which was created through her inspiration.

Essential Albums

  • Hazel & Alice (with Alice Gerrard), 1973
  • Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, 1975
  • Hard Hitting Songs For Hard Hit People, 1980
  • By the Sweat of My Brow, 1983
  • It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song, 1986

Industry Awards

  • International Bluegrass Music Association
    • Merit Award, 1994

Next: #84. Gail Davies

Previous: #86. Allison Moorer

1 Comment

  1. This is probably the major whiff from a decade ago. She was elected into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2017, a long overdue honor.

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