Well, it's hard luck, hard times and one too many rainy days Hard working people who have to live from pay to pay . . . Well it takes its toll upon us and sometimes we drive away the ones who care. From all the wearing and the tearing, the caring just walks right out the door
FROM "LOST PATTERNS" BY HAZEL DICKENS
When Hazel Dickens sings, all the sorrows and hopes of life in and away from her Appalachian roots appear with a startling clarity. Her voice is so plaintive and so emotive that it frequently flies out of control. "I don't like that sometimes," she admits. "It took me a long time to get enough control on the songs that were very personal, talking about my family or someone that I know.I wouldn't ever want to lose that."
Like many country people, Hazel Dickens left the mountains of Montcalm, W. Va., in the late '40s, trying: to find a better life in the urban North. The eighth of 11 children in an extremely poor family, Dickens' sought to forge a new identity in the streets of Baltimore but certain images never left her -- the black lung that killed her brothers, the poverty and anxiety of displaced Southerners, the cultural oppression of women. In the mid-'60s, Dickens started to put her feelings into songs with melodies steeped in country-music traditions.
In her mid-40s, Dickens is recognized today not only as one of the finest traditional folk singers in the country, but as one of its most respected social and political songwriters. Her songs and arrangements (which have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and the New Riders of the Purple Sage) first came to wide attention in 1977 when they formed much of the soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning "Harlan County U.S.A.," a shattering documentary about a bitter and ongoing miners' strike in Kentucky.
Dickens also wrote and recorded the theme song for the 1979 documentary "With Babies and Banners" that dealt with the Women's Emergency Brigades that offered support to striking auto workers in the '30s; she has just completed another film project dealing with women miners. Her latest album, "Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People" has been widely praised (most recently in Ms. and Cosmopolitan). Today at 3 p.m., Dickens, who has lived and worked in the Washington area for the last decade, will perform at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
"We really didn't have anything at all," Dickens says of growing up in the coal camps of West Virginia. Her face is as country as can be -- a plain beauty that is tough rather than hard, a severe mouth framed by high cheekbones, piercing eyes that have seen their share of sorrow. She is shy and soft-spoken in the way of people who don't have to shout to be heard because there are so few distractions in their growing up.
"One place we lived in was a real shack. It was the rattiest place I've ever seen . . . three rooms, the kitchen and the living room which my father's bed was in. All the rest of us slept in the other room. One whole winter I had to stay in the house because I didn't have a coat. When you got big enough, you got out and supported yourself or you stayed and had nothing."
What the house lacked in comfort it made up for with a deep and haunting musical tradition.Dickens' father was a Primitive Baptist preacher whose church was filled with the vivid and raw unnaccompanied singing that is still a part of Dickens' style. "I don't remember ever really enjoying church except the singing . . . They didn't worry about pitch, they didn't worry about key. They'd tell somebody to lead it, start it out. They didn't have a pitch pipe or instruments [which the church saw as tools of the devil], but it was beautiful singing."
Though instruments weren't allowed in the church proper, Dickens' father was a fine old-time banjo player; her brothers and sisters all sang or played the secular music that jumped off the family radio. "My father, even though he preached, still listened to the Grand Ole Opry religiously. At an early hour we would go to bed and leave the radio on and everybody'd listen to it. Most of the kids would go off to sleep, but they usually left it on until the Grand Ole Opry went off. That was the big treat."
The kids grew up listening to the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, Cousin Emmy -- the hillbilly music that grew into country. "We usually had to sing with each other in the family. I was always picking one [brother or sister] out. It one would leave home, I'd pick another one out." As the mines began to close and as work became harder to find, Dickens headed north, working in a Virginia mill before settling in Baltimore with a brother and older sister; she worked in factories and waitressed in an effort to "do better".
"Getting some money and having something meant a lot. We were always looking up to people that had material things . . . I later found out that don't mean a hell of a lot. I felt terribly inferior when I came to the city. People were always putting down my accent -- even people from the South who had been to school and spoke a little better put down others that spoke in an 'unlearned way.'"
There's more to her than powder and paint, than her peroxided bleached-out hair
If she acts that way, it's cause you've had your day
Don't put her down, you helped put here there FROM "DON'T PUT HER DOWN"
In the late '50s, Dickens started to sing in some of the country bands that started popping up after World War II when Baltimore bars began catering to the new wave of Southern workers. "I didn't start writing until much later," she says. "I'd just do what the hard-core country women [Wanda Jackson, Kitty Well, Jean Shepperd] would be singing. We'd get the songs off the jukebox. If there was a new Kitty Wells, you learned it right away because you knew someone was going to ask for it."
The honky-tonks and bars soon turned into a battleground for the young woman who was starting to seek both a cultural and a personal identity. "There was a bar on every corner and the larger portion of the people were country people and they'd get all dressed up, come and get drunk and dance, fight sometimes. I imagine it was just too frustrating to try to cope with the new way they were living and not drink. They were just not equipped emotionally to handle being so free after being so restricted and so bound up by the laws where they had come from. The men couldn't handle it and . . . the women . . . didn't know what their role was supposed to be . . . they'd given up what they'd come from, or they were fighting maybe to hold on to it with everybody else making them believe that this way of life was better. I couldn't understand which way I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be."
The road out became clearer when Dickens met Mike Seeger in 1954. Seeger, Pete's nephew and a musicologist and folklorist, was working at a TB sanitarium where one of Hazel's brothers was a patient. From that meeting evolved a nucleus of musicians interested in the old-style traditional music that had to compete in the bars with increasingly urbanized country music. "People would come in and have a few drinks and start remembering old songs that meant something to them and they'd want us to sing them. That kind of thing was nice . . . and the fact that we got to play." Sometimes for as little as $5 a night.
Over the next two decades, Dickens worked in various configurations, including the Strange Creek Singers, but her most rewarding relationship was with Alice Gerrard. Hazel and Alice released three outstanding albums in which Dickens started to assert herself as a writer. "I wanted to look at my background and what I came from. It's a shame so many young people are turning against old people like they are -- they're just throwing away a lot of themselves, they really are. I look at my mother and father sometimes and I just think about when they die how much history is going to die right there."
Black lung, black lung, oh your hand's icy cold
As you reach for my life and you torture my soul
Cold as that water hole in that dark cave
Where I spent my life's blood diggin' my own grave FROM "BLACK LUNG"
In the late '60s, Dickens finally started writing about her experiences as a woman and as a member of the working class. "I feel now that every song I write, that I want to make a statement for working-class people. I have a responsibility to say something for them. The first powerful song that I wrote was exactly from that point, 'Black Lung.' [Three of her brothers and two brothers-in-law have died from mine-related health problems.]
"When my first brother died, I was with him during the last few days. I went back to West Virginia and we would take turns sitting up with him day and night. Watching him die and looking around at the poverty which he died in -- here was this human being that didn't have a change in hell because he was born into poverty, into a family of 11 children, and the ancestors before him all had large families . . . it's just a vicious cycle. I don't know if he ever saw very many happy days in his lifetime."
The songs, woven out of the rich fabric of traditional music, started to come more frequently -- "My Better Days," "Don't Put Her Down (You Helped Put Her There)," "My Home, West Virginia," "Old Calloused Hands," "Disaster at Mannington Mine," "Which Side Are You On." Dickens' major break came when filmmaker Barbara Kopple chose a number of her coal-mining and union songs (including "Black Lung" and "Which Side Are You On") for the soundtrack of "Harlan County, U.S.A."
She's been called "the working-class conscience of Harlan County" and "an angry voice from the coal fields." Through her work with Alice Gerard, Dickens had long been a favorite voice in the women's movement. She now spends much of her time performing at folk festivals, concerts and fund-raisers for coal miners, welfare rights groups and women's organizations. She will soon start work on a new record.
"Whether I'm singing on or off key, whether I'm even missing some of the chords, when I'm at my best is when I'm belting it out and giving it all I've got. Some people when they hear country, they think of country-western, but to me it's traditional raw . . . not too pretty a sound to some people. The voice may be gravelly, it's not polished or too stylized. It's not a smooth style, it's all feeling and emotion."
But when people hear the stories Dickens recounts, "it helps them know there's somebody out there that's in sympathy, someone who knows what they're going through." And in the hard times that Dickens and her working-class friends see coming back with a vengeance, there's a definite place, even a need, for hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people . . . the kind that Hazel Dickens writes and sings so well.