I’ve been listening to Hazel Dickens a lot lately. I’ve known of her forever, and have listened to her a bit, but never in-depth. It’s been quite an enjoyable experience. I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned.
I’m not going too much into Hazel’s bio. See “Further Reading” below. But here’s a bit. Dickens was born in West Virginia coal country. To say her family was poor is a gross understatement. She learned to sing in the local Primitive Baptist church. She developed a real connection to the area’s culture. Eventually, she realized – like many of her peers – there was no future in West Virginia. Like her sister, she migrated to Baltimore for better economic opportunities. There she started singing with other displaced locals. Later she began playing with Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother), then teamed up with Mike’s wife, Alice Gerrard.
I knew that DC and Baltimore were a hotbed for both bluegrass and country music back in the day. I always wondered why, since that area is not exactly the hill country. But after reading about Hazel, it finally makes sense. As the blues traveled to Chicago from the Delta, so hillbilly music traveled north to DC/Baltimore.
As I said, I’ve been studying Dicken’s catalog. You should do the same, it’s remarkable. To me anyway, her work with Gerrard is well, fine. I like it alright. But her solo work is a revelation. Dicken was a remarkable songwriter. Although she is best known for her topical songs, she also wrote beautiful, tragic autobiographical ones that rival most of those produced by others of her generation.
The book, Working Girl Blues, contains a short bio and also short blurbs by Dickens about many of her most well-known songs. Worth the money and a real aid in understanding her work.
Now on to the obligatory Dylan connections.
Somewhat surprisingly, there aren’t many. They both played the Newport Folk Festival. Dickens did a cover of Dylan’s Only a Hobo. Both covered James Alley Blues and The Ballad of Ira Hayes. Dylan mentions her in his liner notes to World Gone Wrong.
Jerry Garcia showed me TWO SOLDIERS (Hazel & Alice do it pretty similar) a battle song extraordinaire, some dragoon officer’s epaulettes laying liquid in the mud, physical plunge into Limitationville, war dominated by finance (lending money for interest being a nauseating & revolting thing) love is not collateral. hittin’ em where they aint (in the imperfect state that theyre in) America when Mother was the queen of Her heart, before Charlie Chaplin, before the Wild One, before the Children of the Sun–before the celestial grunge, before the insane world of entertainment exploded in our faces–before all the ancient & honorable artillery had been taken out of the city, learning to go forward by turning back the clock, stopping the mind from thinking in hours, firing a few random shots at the face of time…From <http://www.bobdylanroots.com/two.html>
The most important connection is that they were both among the best topical songwriters of their day (or any day for that matter). Black Lung, Clay County Miner, Coal Miner’s Grave, Yablonski’s Grave, They’ll Never Keep Us Down, and many others. She was also an early feminist. See, for example, Mama’s Hands, Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There. But don’t overlook her other work. She wrote a bunch of great non-political songs, such as You’ll Get No More of Me, Callous Hands, Mama Tried, A Few Old Memories. and Pretty Bird.
Not surprising given her background and her deep connection to the mining towns, many of her songs describe the plight of coal miners and their families. Several of her songs – most notably They’ll Never Keep Us Down – are included in the Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County, USA, which chronicles (in Don’t Look Back style) a strike by Kentucky miners in 1974. A must-see.
Dickens was really something special. Check her out.