Coal Mining, Womanhood and Scars From Old Loves

Hazel Dickens Writes Songs From the Heart of a Survivor

Hazel Dickens has never had a song on the country charts, nor does she collaborate with other songwriters. Based in Washington, D.C., she writes alone, working at her own pace, sometimes taking years to finish one of her carefully crafted slices of life.

“I’m not a person that sits down every day and says ’I’m gonna write a song today,'” she admits during a phone interview from her home in Washington. “Generally, I have to get inspired, some way or other. I never did go at it like a lot of the Nashville songwriters. I always envied them when they said, ’I write a little bit every day.'”

That she could write a song at all came as a surprise in the beginning, Dickens observes with a laugh. But others have embraced her work, recording their own versions of her songs. Her heartfelt, Appalachian-style vocals and storytelling songs have influenced artists as diverse as The Judds, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. She has been called the “Queen Mother of Bluegrass,” and she will attend the annual meeting of the International Bluegrass Music Association, taking place today (Oct. 16) through Sunday (Oct. 22) in Louisville, Ky. She performs at 3 p.m. ET, Friday, as part of the IBMA’s annual Fan Fest concerts.

“A Few Old Memories,” a love song, appears on Dolly Parton’s album, The Grass Is Blue, up for the IBMA’s Album of the Year in awards to be presented Thursday night in Louisville. James King also recorded “A Few Old Memories” for a 1995 album, Lonesome & Then Some. Its theme of heartbreak is universal, like the themes of many of Dickens’ songs: “Just a few old memories / Slipped in through the door / Though I thought I had closed it / So tightly before . . . ”

Parton’s reading of the song is surprisingly similar in vocal intensity to Dickens’ original recording, from her 1987 album It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song. Dickens sings with just two guitarists accompanying her, allowing the emotive ache in her voice to resonate with the listener.

“I’d never done anything like that; generally I had a band,” she says of the spare arrangement. “That’s one of the versions Dolly heard, but she did it more from [King’s] version. I actually went into the studio to try to teach it to him. It was a hard one for him to do because he really likes this straight-ahead bluegrass. It was hard to slow him down and get him off of that.”

Other artists who’ve recorded Dickens’ songs include avant-garde guitarist Bill Frisell, bluegrass band the Johnson Mountain Boys and California fiddler and singer Laurie Lewis. Groups such as Freakwater and 5 Chinese Brothers credit Dickens and her former singing partner, Alice Gerrard, as major influences.

Dickens’ songs are drawn from the marrow of human existence. She has been an active voice for the poor and downtrodden since the 1960s. Her songs have dealt with the exploitation of coal miners, factory laborers and underage workers; with black lung, a miners’ disease that contributed to the deaths of three of her brothers; and with women and families broken by hard times. On the gentler side, she also sings about kinship, spiritual faith and love of home.

Lynn Morris, bandleader for the Lynn Morris Band and a songwriter herself, has included a Dickens song on three of her four albums. Her version of Dickens’ “Mama’s Hand” won IBMA Song of the Year in 1996. Morris and Dickens shared the honor.

“I think she’s inspired just countless musicians to want to write better, and to have the nerve to write what’s really on your mind,” Morris says. “Merle Haggard is one person who writes from the heart, and he writes really honestly about things that most men would never care to admit that they’re aware of. Hazel, although she’s coming at it from a different angle, is no less powerful than he is, because it’s so honest. She won’t give in to something quick and trendy and easy — she’ll work on it for 20 years if she has to, to get it.”

An autobiographical song, “Mama’s Hand” explores the feelings of a young woman from a poor mining family who leaves home to make a better life for herself. Morris heard the song shortly after her mother died, and it so moved her that she immediately decided to record it, but it took months before she could sing it, she says.

“When I heard that song, I had just a flood of emotion,” Morris recalls. “It was completely out of my control, that’s just the effect it had on me. Hazel’s circumstances growing up were different than mine, but I left home when I was 16 myself and went away. And I remember seeing that exact thing she talks about in the song, watching her mother standing at the door. It was a real strong connection.”

A Mercer County, W.Va., native, Dickens was the eighth of 11 children from an impoverished coal mining family. Her father was a Primitive Baptist preacher who hauled timber for a coal company. Dickens attributes her ability to use her lone voice as an instrument to her upbringing in the church, where musical accompaniment was forbidden. She left home in the early 1950s as a teenager to find work in Baltimore, and while holding down day jobs in factory work, she began singing in local bars with two of her brothers. She later learned to accompany herself on guitar, and also played upright bass.

Dickens met classically trained singer Gerrard at a musical gathering in a friend’s home. Modeling themselves after the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, they began performing as a duo. They recorded two albums for the Folkways label, Who’s That Knocking? in 1965 and Won’t You Come and Sing for Me in 1973 (reissued on CD in 1996 as Pioneering Women in Bluegrass). They next signed with Rounder Records, releasing two more albums, 1973’s Hazel & Alice and 1976’s Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. By choosing their own songs, and by arranging them and performing them according to their own taste, the duo set an important example for other women coming up in bluegrass music.

“I think you could probably put me in with a lot of other women who want to do their own thing, and they don’t like people telling them what to play or sing,” Dickens says. “I didn’t do very well, ever, just falling in the ’old pack.’ You would be surprised at how many people want to hear the same six or seven songs, over and over again.”

After four albums and 10 years, Dickens and Gerrard went their separate ways creatively, but the time they spent playing folk festivals and researching songs in the folksong archives at the Library of Congress vastly expanded Dickens’ repertoire. Four of her own songs were featured in the Oscar-winning documentary from 1976, Harlan County, USA, about a coal strike.

In 1979, Dickens quit her day job and made songwriting her full-time profession. Two years later, she released Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, her first solo album. It contained seven original songs, including the spirited workers’ diatribe, “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” featured in Harlan County, USA.

Morris recalls a concert on a college campus in Abingdon, Va., in which Dickens played for a gathering of people who had been involved in labor struggles. “They’d really had no voice, until she came along with some songs about coal mining and kind of gave some of these people a voice they’d never had, and they revered her,” Morris explains. “You’ll see people sitting in the audience with tears in their eyes — grown men — when she sings. Because she connects, she’s their voice.”

“I started opening my eyes and my consciousness kept getting raised, the more I was in the workforce,” Dickens explains. “You’re working with your hands instead of your head, and [factory bosses] didn’t want anything that was in your head. They just wanted your manual labor — womanly labor.”

“Working Girl Blues” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” became anthems of the feminist movement in the ’70s.

“Working people spend all their lives making some people rich — namely their bosses and the companies they work for. And then they don’t want to take care of ’em, they don’t want to give ’em the good medical benefits, or the proper time off that they need.”

Lately, Dickens has been working on a song based on the loss of U.S. jobs to Third World countries, leaving workers in the States unemployed. Her niece lost her job when the plant she worked for had her train new employees, only to close down and move abroad. “It leaves people here behind, and they’ve spent a lot of time at the company, maybe their entire lives,” Dickens explains with fiery resolve.

She’s also working on “two or three love songs,” and “one that talks about old songs — and I love to sing the old songs,” she says. At 65, Dickens talks about “getting her butt in the studio” and recording another album, and she continues to encourage other writers like Morris. The two have become friends. Dickens gave Morris her 1953 Gibson Southern Jumbo guitar that, she says, has “been through the war.”

“She even gave me a list of the songs she wrote with that guitar,” Morris beams, “and I have some pictures of her playing that guitar back in those days. It is inspiring. That, to me, is the kind of thing that just really means something. It would suit me just fine to never do another album without one of her songs on it.”