Hazel Dickens, bluegrass pioneer who sang of miners and downtrodden, dies at 75

April 22, 2011

Hazel Dickens, a troubadour of hard times whose raw, heartfelt songs about coal miners and the life of the downtrodden made her a revered figure in country and bluegrass music, died April 22 at the Washington Home hospice in the District. She was 75 and had complications from pneumonia.

Ms. Dickens, who grew up in a three-room shack in West Virginia’s coal country, was a forceful voice of the working class, singing with unguarded emotion of poverty, labor and loss. She often appeared at union rallies and benefits for mineworkers, and her plaintive singing was heard in the Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County U.S.A.” (1976) and John Sayles’s 1987 coal-mining drama “Matewan.”

“She is one of the absolutely finest and [most] authentic singers we have,” music historian Charles Wolfe told The Washington Post in 2001. “Her singing has not only that ‘high lonesome sound,’ but you can hear the pain and anguish and the anger in it. It is absolutely heartfelt and sincere.”

Having supported herself since she was 16, Ms. Dickens brought a bracing real-world perspective to bluegrass songwriting and was among the first to address the plight of women in the workplace. She and her onetime singing partner, Alice Gerrard, were identified with the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960s with such songs as “Working Girl Blues” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” about a woman mistreated by men.

An autobiographical song Ms. Dickens wrote in the early 1980s, “Mama’s Hand,” about leaving a mining town with “one old paper bag full of hand-me-downs,” was named bluegrass song of the year in 1996, after it appeared on an album by the Lynn Morris Band.

Ms. Dickens released a handful of albums during her lifetime — including two with Gerrard and three solo efforts — but she became a favorite performer at folk and bluegrass festivals and exerted a strong influence on such later singers as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and the Judds.

According to Ken Irwin, a founder of Rounder Records, a tribute album is in preparation, with Ms. Dickens’s songs performed by such diverse artists as Harris, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash. A new album of unreleased music by Ms. Dickens is also nearly complete.

Although she made her home in Washington for more than 40 years, Ms. Dickens always stayed true to the sound and spirit of the mountains of West Virginia.

Her rough-hewn, keening singing style grew out of her early experiences in her father’s Primitive Baptist church, where musical instruments were not allowed, and from a mountain tradition that included singers Aunt Molly Jackson and Sarah Ogan Gunning.

“When I’m at my best is when I’m belting it out and giving it all I’ve got,” Ms. Dickens told The Post in 1981. “It’s not a smooth style, it’s all feeling and emotion.”

Hazel Jane Dickens was born June 1, 1935, in Montcalm, W.Va., the eighth of 11 children. Besides his weekend preaching, her father played banjo and drove a truck delivering timber to the mines.

The family lived in dire poverty. Three of her brothers died from mining-related illnesses.

“One whole winter,” Ms. Dickens recalled to The Post, “I had to stay in the house because I didn’t have a coat.”

But there was always music, whether in church or listening to the Carter Family or the Monroe Brothers on the radio.

At 16, Ms. Dickens moved with her parents to Baltimore to find work and to be close to a brother who was being treated for tuberculosis.

With earnings from jobs as a waitress, a factory worker and store clerk, she bought a guitar and a stand-up bass and soon began to perform in local hillbilly bands.

At a tuberculosis sanitarium, she met Mike Seeger, the half-brother of folk giant Pete Seeger, and they began to work together. She later toured with folk singer Joan Baez before forming a group with Gerrard, a classically trained singer.

When Ms. Dickens began to write songs about her world of “hard-working people who just got by from pay to pay,” as she put it in one of her songs, she was as “surprised as anyone else.”

“She forever raised the bar for bluegrass writing,” Dudley Connell, a guitarist with the venerable bluegrass group Seldom Scene, said Friday.

In 1970, after her marriage to Joseph S. Cohen ended in divorce, Ms. Dickens moved to Washington. A brother is her only immediate survivor.

She gained wide recognition in 1976, when director Barbara Kopple asked Ms. Dickens to sing four songs for her documentary about a coal-mine strike, “Harlan County U.S.A.” Ms. Dickens donated her singing for free “because I knew Barbara was about $60,000 in debt on the project, and I badly wanted to see it get into theaters.”

Her rousing finale, “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” became an anthem for miners and union workers.

After managing a Mexican import shop in Georgetown, Ms. Dickens gave up her day job in 1979 to concentrate on music. Her first solo album, “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People,” came out in 1981, followed by “By the Sweat of My Brow” (1984) and “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” (1986).

She often appeared at the National Festival of American Folk Life, received a National Heritage fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was the subject of a documentary.

In 1987, Ms. Dickens appeared in a haunting graveyard scene singing “Beautiful Hills of Galilee” in “Matewan,” Sayles’s film about union organizing in West Virginia in the 1920s.

Ms. Dickens gave her final public performance March 16 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, which typically attracts new music and a younger crowd. When a frail 75-year-old stepped on stage with her guitar, the young audience didn’t know what to expect.

“At South by Southwest, she had the Hazel swagger going,” said Connell, who played guitar alongside her that night. “She pinned them to the wall, buddy, I’m not kidding you. My guess is their mouths are still open.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.