By Michael Hudson
Tuesday, November 26, 2002
Folk musician Hazel Dickens is enjoying a resurgence of interest in her work. She's the star of a documentary about her life and is giving concerts around the United States.
(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.
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