HAZEL DICKENS, who has lived and worked in the Washington area for the last decade, has been singing working-class and women's music for over 30 years, long before either style was fashionable. Several of her songs, including "Black Lung" and "They'll Never Keep Us Down," added urgency to Barbara Koppel's award-winning film "Harlan County, USA" and artists as diverse as Emmylou Harris ("Hello Stranger") and the New Riders of the Purple Sage ("Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There") have covered her material.
But nobody sings Dickens like Dickens, which is what makes her new album, "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People" (Rounder 0126), a rough-hewn delight. It hardly matters that Dickens sometimes slides off key or roughs up her own lyrics. Her approach has always been aggressively traditional, producing raw country and bluegrass with such similar intensity that their differences dissappear. Her music deals with mountain and country people who, even when they move to the city, encounter familiar demons of poverty, unemployment and drink. Dickens writes about the human aspect of these sufferings with uncluttered insight and defiant solidarity.
Seven of the 12 songs on this album are Dickens originals, and one suspects almost all of them will be covered soon. The studio work, evenly divided between old-fashioned Nashville country polish and the acoustic stridency of traditional bluegrass, is the most sympathetic Dickens has ever had; the consistently empathetic backing creates a thematic chord of immediacy connecting the styles.
Dickens sings of displacement -- sexual ("Tommorow's Already Lost," "Scraps From Your Table"), generational ("Old Calloused Hands," "Rocking Chair Blues") and class ("West Virginia, My Home," "They'll Never Keep Us Down"). Even her covers, like the exuberant fatalism of Harlan Howard's "Busted" or the resignation of Adam Mitchell's "Out Among the Stars," deal with loss of identity and pride.
In "Lost Patterns" she sings convincingly of "hard-working people who just got by from pay to pay/Well, it takes its toll upon us and we sometimes drive away the ones who care/-From all the wearing and the tearing, the caring just walks right out the door." Her characters are much put upon, sometimes having to chose between the comfort of the bottle or the comfort of religion. Echoing "Don't Put Her Down," "Tomorrow's Already Lost" vainly warns about "downtown, where plenty of men are waiting to help drag her down."
But when Dickens sings an unaccompanied version of the classic fundamentalist hymn, "Beautiful Hills of Galilee," it acts as an affirmation of faith and a sanction of country roots, country pride and country art miles beyond the artifice of Nashville or Washington. Like most of the songs on this album, it's a great piece of cloth woven from the fabric of working-class experience, with the rough edges left intact. It's music in the tradition of Aunt Molly Jackson and Sarah Ogan Gunning, and Dickens lets it hang out on the line, less a testament to acquired skills than to her intensely felt natural craft.
Dickens, who worked in a Virginia mill during her migration from Montcalm, (W.Va.) to urban centers in 1950, also sings Si Kahn's "Aragon Mill." Kahn is one of the most promising labor songwriters (he has excellent albums out on Flying Fish and June Appal records), and "Aragon Mill" also appears on "A Water Over Stone" (Folk Legacy FSI-80) featuring Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir and Ed Trickett, who teaches at the University of Maryland.
This loose-knit trio has brought new definition to folk harmony singing, celebrating distinct individual voices that resolve in quietly graceful ensemble work. Bok's sturdy oak-like bass sinks deep and supports the music that celebrates simplicity and the idea of hearth-singing. His own songs, "Dark Old Waters" and the title song, are classic, mournful paens to the sea and the people who live with it.
Another album of local interest comes from acoustic guitarist John Fahey, who named a record company after his old neighborhood. "Live In Tasmania" (Takoma TAK 7089) is the first live album in the long career of the man who turned his guitar into a Western sitar. The styling is familiar, even if some of the melodies are new -- sonorous tones, cascading notes, flurries of chords alternately threatening and soothing depending on Fahey's momoentary dynamic delusion. The Hunter Thompson of acoustic guitar greets his audience with "I don't know anybody except you guys who's ever been here before" and then regales them with his machine-gun guitar diction. It's a typical atypical performance from Fahey, who's always marched to a different strum.