Trailblazing bluegrass and folk singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens recently died at the age of 76. Dickens was a performer whose childhood in a West Virginia coal mining town led her to become a labor activist and inspired a life-long musical career.
“It’s Hard to Tell The Singer From The Song” is the title track to Hazel Dickens' 1987 solo CD. Many of Hazel’s songs, like “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” are anthems to working men and women, with the plight of non-unionized workers being a subject close to her heart, as was the coal mining country that she grew up in.
One of Hazel Dickens' most famous is “Black Lung,” written for a brother who died of the disease. Black lung is the common name for any lung disease developing from breathing coal dust.
Hazel Dickens grew up the eighth of 11 children in a poor mining family in West Virginia. Poverty forced her to leave the family home and move to Baltimore, Maryland, where she worked in factories alongside her sister and two brothers.
In a VOA interview several years ago, Hazel said the four attended music gatherings in their rare free time. At one, she met Mike Seeger, the younger brother of folk legend Pete Seeger, and they soon formed a band with her two brothers.
Over the next few years, Hazel became a regular part of the Baltimore and Washington music scene, playing and singing in several bands.
In the early 1960s, she teamed up with Alice Gerrard, and the two spent hours at the United States Library of Congress, researching early folk songs. They recorded only two albums together, but countless female musicians cite Hazel and Alice as influences and continue to perform their songs like “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me.”
Hazel Dickens’ solo career began with the soundtrack to an Academy Award-winning documentary film about a violent miner’s strike. “Harlan County USA” is a very powerful film about a 13-month strike, and it highlights the central role women played. Hazel has four songs on the soundtrack, including “They’ll Never Keep Us Down.”
Songs like that one are a reason that Hazel Dickens was called the “voice of the working class.” While many come from her own life, Hazel’s songs are ones that many people, not just those working down deep in coal mines or in factories can identify with.
Hazel Dickens lived in Washington for many years and, despite bouts of ill health, performed at the South by Southwest music conference just a month before her death. She received many honors and accolades over her long career, including membership in the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, a lifetime achievement award from the Folk Alliance International, and on April 16 of this year Hazel was given the Washington Monument award by the D.C. Bluegrass Union.
Watch Folk Alliance International's tribute to Hazel Dickens: