(WOMENSENEWS)–Hazel Dickens’ voice is the call of the high lonesome, the moan of working people who’ve been put down and put upon, the cry of a woman standing up for herself and for anyone else who’s sick of being pushed around.
Dickens is a living legend in traditional music who inspired a generation of fans, musicians and activists during the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. Now she’s enjoying a surge of newinterest in her work, thanks to a documentary about her life, “Hazel Dickens–It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song,” an appearance in last year’s feature film “Songcatcher,” and Dolly Parton’s recording of a Dickens-penned song, “A Few Old Memories.”
Now in her 60s, at an age when many people are easing into retirement, Dickens remains as she was, a plainspoken singer and songwriter who embraces the blue-collar feminism and working-class tenacity that made her stand out in a country-music world ruled by sequin-spangled love songs or crying-in-your-beer ballads. In his new book, “Don’t Get above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class,” historian Bill Malone writes that Dickens “was well ahead of all of the women singer-songwriters in her fusion of women-sensitive songs and class-conscious working-folk’s songs.”
Of course, if you ask Dickens if she’s an activist, she’ll say she’s not much on labels. “We didn’t grow up with that word,” she says. “We stuck up for ourselves. We didn’t call it feminism or activism. That’s just something the intellectuals put on it.”
She is a dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter of Appalachia, speaking over the telephone from her home in a soft but firm voice that retains the country rhythms of her upbringing. For the past three decades, she has occupied a modest apartment in Washington. She was born worlds away, during Depression times in Mercer County, W.Va. She was just 16 in the mid-1950s when still-hard times drove her to leave the West Virginia coalfields and look for work in Baltimore.
Hazel and Alice Took on Issues Other Musicians Avoid
She was lonely and aggrieved by the rudeness of city folk who looked down on her as a hillbilly. Eventually, her singing made her friends and gave her a career.
By the 1970s, she and Alice Gerrard gained acclaim as a folk duo. Performing and recording as Hazel and Alice, they represented something rare and revolutionary in traditional music, where women were expected defer to men, usually performing only in conjunction with husbands, fathers or brothers.
Hazel and Alice took on issues that few performers wanted to tackle. Dickens’ song “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” was a powerful attack on the sexual politics of barroom romance and the myth of the fallen woman. In “Coal Mining Woman,” Dickens offered this simple advice to male miners upset by the idea of working underground alongside women: “If you can’t stand by me/Well don’t stand in my way.”
Along the way, her music drove the soundtracks of two acclaimed films–1976’s “Harlan County USA” and 1987’s “Matewan”–and attracted a list of important admirers.
Country stars Wynonna and Naomi Judd credit Dickens with inspiring them to fight for a place in a male-dominated business. Punk singer Allison Wolfe, a founder of the riot grrrl movement, recalls Hazel and Alice records as the soundtrack for her childhood.
The music, Wolfe says, helped keep her mom going through tough times and helped form Wolfe’s feminist, anti-authoritarian world view.
“Hazel’s so amazing,” says Wolfe, a member of the seminal women’s punk band Bratmobile. “Her music was cool because it was so many things, because it was feminist but also really standing up for working people, and because it was music really done in a traditional way.”
Dickens to Appear In the “O Sister” Tour
A recent article in Punk Planet magazine, comparing Dickens’ and Wolfe’s styles of protest music, is an example of the growing recognition of Dickens’ legacy. Last year she was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In September, filmmaker Mimi Pickering’s documentary, “Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song,” drew a crowd at its Washington premiere. Dickens’ concert schedule continues to draw loyalists and converts. In February, she’ll take the stage in Raleigh, N.C., as part of the “O Sister” tour, a spinoff of “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” a Hollywood movie that’s rekindled interest in traditional music.
Dickens is heartened by the strides women have made in recent years in bluegrass music, but says there’s still discrimination, even against women who have attained headliner status. “They can’t speak up and voice it because if they do, they won’t get hired,” Dickens says. “A lot of people will resent me saying that, but I have heard stories.”
She endures because she’s always spoken her mind, and she’s stuck to her roots. As her former singing partner, Gerrard, says, “Hazel is one of the strongest people I know. She came up in a hard life and she’s taken it and made something really fantastic out of it.”
Michael Hudson is a staff writer with The Roanoke Times in Virginia.
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