Sunday, December 25, 2011

In Memoriam: Hazel Dickens

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard: Who's That Knocking


Hazel Dickens: Only A Hobo
Hazel Dickens: Hills of Home


Raised in and ultimately hailed as the authentic voice of the West Virginia mountains, born into poverty and a factory-worker until she was discovered by Mike Seeger in the early sixties, early bluegrass trailblazer and singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens channeled the pain and hardship of coal country and holler culture into a wailing plea for social and economic justice - first alongside classically trained partner (and Seeger's spouse) Alice Gerrard, where they were arguably the first true female bluegrass tenor-and-lead harmony duo on the circuit; later as a solo act and collaborator.

Their arrangements of classic bluegrass and appalachian tunes would become standard in the country music world, with coverage by Emmylou and others. Hazel's stature would ultimately win her several major industry achievement awards, and a National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. And later, Hazel's originals, such as Coal Tattoo and union song They'll Never Keep Us Down, would find no small placement in a myriad of documentary soundtracks about the region and its woes, giving her influence enough to merit major coverage in the NYT upon her passage at 75 due to complications from pneumonia.

I didn't know much about Hazel until this year myself, having only started digging into older bluegrass in the past few years. But these three tracks - the first from Hazel and Alice's early years as pioneering women of bluegrass, via a prescient Art Decade post in January and recorded with sidemen Lamar Grier, Chubby Wise, David Grisman, and Billy Baker, the second a track from a 1987 solo album snagged as part of a 70-song set of Dylan covers in honor of his birthday this year over at Boogie Woogie Flu, posted just a month after her passing, the third another track from that album I fell in love with after tracking it down - show both evolution and common conviction, saying more in song that I could in words.

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