Remembering Hazel Dickens: A Feminist Bluegrass Voice

April 25, 2011

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Anthony Pidgeon
Hazel Dickens onstage at 2008's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.

Folksinger Hazel Dickens, a pioneer for women in bluegrass who influenced the likes of Naomi Judd and Emmylou Harris, died Friday. She was 75.

In 1987, Dickens spoke with Terry Gross about her appearance in Matewan, John Sayles' film about a rural coal-mining strike in 1920s West Virginia. The film was shot near the coal town where Dickens grew up, in Mercer County, W.V., and featured Dickens singing the kind of songs she sang in real life: a cappella ballads about the mining life and the struggles of the poor, women and other workers.

One of 11 children, Dickens grew up in a coal-mining family. She listened to Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on the radio and sang in her church. When she was 16, she left her large family and headed north to Baltimore to work in a factory.

"I didn't intentionally reject that part of my life," Dickens told Terry Gross. "Since some of the mines closed down there, there wasn't a lot of work, which meant there was even less work for women, because women usually did ... factory or waitress work."

In the 1960s, Dickens began to perform her own compositions on the bluegrass and folk circuits with Alice Gerrard. Known as Hazel and Alice, the duo performed songs steeped in Americana about the struggles of everyday life, particularly for women.

"There did seem to be a large space there that women like me and other women that were coming along could fill," Dickens said. "And that was to give other women that didn't want to sing the old traditional songs — to give them something that they could identify with and something that they could sing. I've had many women tell me that I was the only woman who came along that was writing songs that they could sing within the tradition."

Hazel Dickens received a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008. She was also a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor.
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