Hazel Dickens’ biography would appear to follow the typical story of many young rural Appalachian women from rural West Virginia. Raised in a coal-mining community near Montcalm, West Virginia as one of 11 children, Dickens moved away in her teens to work in the factories of Baltimore. There she met Mike Seeger, younger brother of Pete Seeger and founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. She became active in the Baltimore-Washington area bluegrass and folk music scene during the 1960s, and, during this time, established a collaborative relationship with Mike Seeger’s wife, Alice Gerrard. As Hazel & Alice they recorded two albums for the Folkways label. Using her first hand experience of hard work, hard times, and hard working souls to inspire songs such as “Working Girl Blues,” “Black Lung,” “and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” Dicken’s quickly became a strong voice full of emotional insight and the classic high, lonesome sound.
Marrying the songwriting abilities of Woody Guthrie with the straight-ahead singing skills of Kitty Wells, she remains an inspiration for generations of women singers of bluegrass and country music. Her music was featured in the film Harlan County, U.S.A., and she appeared performing in a similar film, Matewan. Currently a resident of Washington, D.C., Hazel Dickens’ life and music are inextricably intertwined. As she says in the title song of a recent film documentary about her life produced by Appalshop, “It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song.” With power and grace, Dickens provides audiences a deeply moving look into the heart of Appalachian music.
This artist appears in Jubilee #715: Hazel Dickens/Wade and Julia Mainer.