It is a country face, almost severe in its plainness, the kind you see behind counters in places named Spence Hollow and Big Auger and Beckley. The hair, soft and fine, winds down her forehead and into her eyes and around the edges of her mouth; a pale, bony hand rakes it back.
The composer of the music for "Harlan County, U.S.A." is seated in her apartment in Glover Park. It is a modest place. There are plants, a leaf collection, a few framed pictures. On a self is Loretta Lynn's autobiography - "The Coal Miner's Daughter." Against the sofa ia s piece of embroidery. "Love is like bread; it must be made fresh daily" is the message. She got it as a gift from a friend.
Across the room Hazel Dickens' high, ready voice is coming from a stereo. The song is "Cold-Blooded Murder" and it is about the slaying of United Mine Workers leader Jock Yabionski and his wife and daughter on New Year's Eve nine years ago. Tonight in Washington at a benefit for miners from Stearns, Ky., Dickens will perform that number, along with others she has written.
"I really got mad when I heard about that murder," she is saying above the music. She is sipping coffee. It is early morning; in an hour she must be at work at a Mexican curio and clothes shop in Georgetown. "I just got furious thinking something like that could still happen in America. I'd wake up at night, seething. It was inevitable I'd write it."
One is tempted to say there are a lot of inevitabilities in Hazel Dickens' life. For one thing she comes from the hardscrabble coal fields of West Virginia - Mercer County, the kind of place Michael Harrington wrote of in "The Other America," a landmark work on Appalachian poverty. her native earth has a terribel beauty, she says. You can be overwhelmed by its spring lushness, and ravaged by its scarred, winter bleakness. She doesn't know if she could go back.
She is the eighth of 11 children, the daughter of an odd-jobbing, move-about, music-loving Baptist preacher. H. N. Dickens is near death now in Baltimore. "Daddy was a primitive preacher. He never went to school or anything. They just appointed him minister of these mountain places." When he wasn't witnessing the Lord, preacher Dickens hauled timber for coal companies. For a time, he had his own business.
Always there was music in the house. "I grew up with it on the living room rug," she says.
Just about all her family has worked in or around the mines. Sometimes she thinks coal and those black watery holes are all she knew the first 20 years of her life. (She declines to say how old she is now - it's "professionally bad, since I got started in music late." She looks to be in her middle years. Her oldest brother died of Black Lung. Another brother got it, too - though the doctors didn't call it that. "They said he had cancer, but we knew what it was."
In the '50s, the Dickens family moved up to Baltimore. Appalachian flight. One of Hazel's brothers was confined to a TB sanitarium. There he met musicologist and folk historian Mike Seeger, who later included H. N. Dickens and several of the family on a Folkways album called "Old-Time Tunes and Songs of the South." (Hazel Dickens has two albums of her own on Folkways; several others, recorded with her former partner, Alice Gerrard, are on Rounder Records, an obscure Boston label.)
She still has kin in West Virginia. "One of my brothers-in-law draws Black Lung comp. He's a shell of a man. I don't know if he weighs 100 pounds. The other, he could probably draw it, but he's so sick he doesn't seem to care anymore. He just sits there all day with my sister."
She says this last impassively, almost blankly. Her arms are folded across her chest. She is studying the opposite wall. "Some of this you just have to gloss over in your mind. I mean, I've talked to other people and they say the same thing. You can't really describe the things you've seen in the coal fields, some of the images that stay with you wherever you go."
"Black Lung, Black Lung, oh your hand's icy cold," reads one of her lyrics.
A moment later, after another question, she circles back. "It's not all bad down there, of course.Some coal families have good lives, nice homes. They raise children. They don't get Lung. It's just the percentages that are against you. Nearly all my family has suffered at the hands of power and money. That formed me."
Seven years ago, separated from her husband. Dickens moved to Washington. She already had a minor cult following by then, and continued to write. Songs like "Which Side Are You On" and "Disaster at the Mannington Mine" became small, angry classics. Now she is regarded by some critics as one of the East Coast's finest traditional country singers and composers. She has played Smithsonian concerts, the National Folklife Festival, the college and coffee-house circuit through the South. Her music, of course, has never begun to support her.
"I've waitressed and clerked and worked in factories making paper cups. In that last one, we tried to organize. They fired people left and right when they found out. I've been women in textile plants with Brown Lung that's nearly as bad as Black. You get it from the lint." She says her current job - as manager of Old Mexico on Wisconsin in Georgetown - is easily the best she's had. "It pays the rent and the music."
Last year Dickens' career poked above ground with "Harlan County, U.S.A." The documentary - a chronicle of the development and eventual victory in a bloody unionizing fight at the Brookside, Ky., mines - won producer-director Babara Kopple an Academy Award; Dickens won thanks. She gaver her music gratis to the film, she says, "because I knew Barbara was about $60,000 in debt on the project, and I badly wanted to see it get into theaters."
But the other day, to her amazement, Dickens received a letter from lawyers at BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), informing her she might be due some money from the film yet. "If I do, it'll be my first windfall ever," she says, grinning fiercely.
Tonight, at Grace Episcopal Church, there won't be any windfalls; just feelings. Dickens and several other activist singer-songwriters will appear at a Christmas benefit for 150 miners who have been out 17 months, trying to force the Blue Diamond Coal Co. to sign a UMW contract. Stearns isn't far from Brookside.
"Once you've been there, once you've seen it," she says, "you're glad to do anything you can. Some of these families will barely have food and shelter for Christmas, let alone gifts. If you put that in your piece, maybe we'll get a turnout."
Pause.Smile. "The music'll be good, too. I promise."