Beautiful not pretty: Hazel Dickens remembered
I have my mom to thank for introducing me to the music of Hazel Dickens.
When I was a kid, we owned two albums by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, recorded in the 1970’s for Rounder Records. Hazel and Alice were the first bluegrass/old-time musicians I ever listened to. I had no idea these were groundbreaking albums—I was just mesmerized by the sound of their music.
It was different, for a Jewish kid growing up in New England. This was not what I heard on the radio. It was stringband music— by turns driving, haunting, playful, and bluesy, with fiddle, banjo, and guitar winding themselves around two women’s voices.
And it was their voices—unlike any I’d ever heard before—that really grabbed me. The singing was not “pretty.” But it was stunning, raw, and authentic. I felt like when I listened to Hazel Dickens I was listening to all the heartache and struggle of the hard-hit working people of the southern mountains.
I still get chills up my spine when I listen to her sing “Pretty Bird.”
I didn’t know how unusual it was to have an album of old-time and bluegrass music featuring two women who not only played and sang, but wrote their own material in the style.
I had no idea that Hazel and Alice were flouting convention by singing openly about women’s issues, with songs like “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There”, “Working Girl Blues”, and “Custom Made Woman Blues”.
All I knew was that their music felt real and made a lot of sense to me.
And they didn’t just sing about women’s issues—Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard sang about working people. They sang old-time country songs and bluegrass standards. They sang about the Appalachian Mountains and the people who lived there. They sang about men and women who, like Hazel herself, moved out of Appalachia in search of jobs, into industrial cities in the north.
It was a window into a part of North American culture that wasn’t covered in my history classes. More than any other artists I can think of, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard opened my ears to the sounds and stories of Appalachia.
Hazel Dickens went on to record several solo albums after she parted ways with Alice Gerrard, and we had some of those albums too (Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, By The Sweat of My Brow, and It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From The Song). They, too, were chock full of her incredible singing, her classic songs, and of course, her courage to speak out about issues that mattered to her.
Others could probably give you a more strictly factual account of her life and legacy. Musicians like Emmylou Harris and The Judds have acknowledged her influence. Her songs are classics in the genre. “West Virginia,” “My Mama’s Hand,” “Pretty Bird,” “Working Girl Blues,” “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” and many more have been recorded by countless musicians. But for me her story goes far beyond that.
“The greatest takeaway for me with Hazel is her courage on all matters except flying and revealing her age. The courage to leave home in the hills for the industrial harshness of Baltimore a half century ago. The courage to play bass in the hostile male world of bluegrass. The courage to partner with Alice Gerrard and record bluegrass albums with male sidemen. The courage to write bluegrass songs that raised issues a lot of people would rather not discuss. The courage to be honest and confrontational. The courage to speak truth to power in her art and to keep alive the tradition of hillbilly radical singers like Sarah Ogun Gunning and Aunt Molly Jackson while working in a genre that had little model or precedent for that…”
In 2009 I was asked to make a list of my top ten albums of all time for Penguin Eggs Magazine, and the album Hazel and Alice was one of the first to go on the list. Why? Because Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard taught me that “beautiful” is not the same as “pretty,” because they were a prime example of women musicians who paved the way for people like me to follow, and because they introduced me to Appalachian music.
I never had the chance to see Hazel Dickens perform but I did get to meet her briefly, many years later when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Folk Alliance. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to shake her hand and tell her how much her music meant to me.
RIP, Hazel, you will be missed.
Eve Goldberg is a singer, songwriter, performer and instructor steeped in North American folk music traditions.