Friday, April 22, 2011

County Music Legend Hazel Dickens dies at age 75

I remember the first time I met Hazel Dickens.  I was attending a screening of It's Hard to tell the Singer from a Song at an Appalshop fundraiser in Washington DC.  It was 2001 and I was a new professor at George Mason University.  I went forward to meet Hazel and get her autograph.  During this brief encounter I told her I taught Appalachian Folklore at GMU and would love to have her come to campus to perform.  I'll never forget her look of surprise.

Hazel died on Thursday evening in her sleep.  May she rest in peace.

I'm reprinting the obituary from the Sunday Charleston Gazette:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Country music legend Hazel Dickens, who grew up in poverty in Mercer County and sang her hard-hitting songs about working people, coal mining and West Virginia all over the world, died in her sleep Thursday night at age 75.

"She was a treasure, a musical pioneer in bluegrass music, a gifted songwriter, an activist and a very wise woman who saw the truth in things and spoke it freely," Goldenseal magazine editor and musician John Lilly said Friday. "She sang and wrote about mining issues and mine safety issues and women's issues in general, and spoke up in her songs and conversation for people who needed a voice."

Dickens was "an authentic voice of America's working class," The Washington Post said Friday.
She received a 2001 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been honored by the mithsonian Institution, the International Folk Alliance, the International Bluegrass Music Association and many other organizations.

But she frequently said that no award meant more to her than her induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

"These rugged mountains and these coal-dusty mining towns and lonesome hollers have shaped my life," she said during her induction in 2007. "They shaped my music for all time."

Her songs were recorded by Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, Johnny Cash and scores of other musicians. Her song "West Virginia, Oh My Home" has become an unofficial West Virginia anthem, and "Mama's Hand" was an International Bluegrass Music Association song of the year. Her deep understanding of working women showed in songs like "Working Girl Blues" and "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There."
Dickens' songs like "Black Lung," "They'll Never Keep Us Down" and "The Farmington Mine Disaster" chronicled West Virginia's coal mining history and were featured in the films "Matewan" and "Harlan County USA."

"Hazel was a real inspiration to coal miners everywhere," United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said Friday. "She was a strong, clear voice when we needed one and was never at a loss for words when it came to describing the hard lives miners and their families endured."

Dickens frequently sang on picket lines and at benefit concerts to raise money for miners on strike, Roberts recalled. "She was a sister to us all."

"She was an icon, not just for West Virginians, but for anyone who had a concern for labor and women's issues," said Michael Lipton, founder of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. "She entered bluegrass music when it was a man's world, and she didn't push open doors. She kicked them open and allowed many other women to follow."

Dickens was raised in a hardworking family of 11 children who sang and played music together at home. "Any day at my house, somebody was singing," she said. "It didn't cost a dime to sing. Sometimes people passing by on the road thought it was the radio, and they'd stop and listen."

Her father, Hillary (H.N.) Dickens, trucked timber to the mines during the week and was a Primitive Baptist preacher on Sundays.

"He taught me to love the old-time country way of singing," Dickens said in 2009. "I can't remember a time when I didn't sing. I'd just open up my mouth and let it roar."

"We should all have that visceral a connection to our music," Kathy Mattea said Friday. "I thought I knew what singing was until I started digging into Hazel's singing and her music. Listening to that voice challenged me to let go on another level. She had such a simple eloquence to her writing. There's just no gimmick to it. It takes you straight to the gut of your longing."

Dickens had agreed to be part of a June 5 rally to protest the strip mining of Blair Mountain. Organizer Mari-lynn Evans said the event also will now be a memorial service and concert in Dickens' honor at the state Culture Center in Charleston.

For more on Hazel Dickens, including some of her songs,

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