On their groundbreaking, self-titled album of 1973, Bluegrass duo Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard performed a song penned by Dickens, "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There." The feminist theme was, to say the least, unusual in traditional mountain music. The song is, however, typical of Dickens, who in her writing often combines traditional music with contemporary political and social issues. In particular, the plight of mineworkers has been of great concern to Dickens, who grew up around the coal mines of Mercer County, W.Va.
Over her four-decade career, Dickens has sung at numerous rallies in support of striking coal miners. With her beautiful high, lonesome tenor, she has become a voice of conscience for the rights of women and workers in general. How fitting then that Dickens should be the headliner for this year's Appalachian Festival at Coney Island, with its theme of "Appalachian Women: Finding Their Voices."
Dickens, who lives these days in Washington, D.C., found her voice in the musical sense, she says, from singing with her large family. "My father was a very strong singer, and there were a lot of people in my background that were singers. We didn't have a lot of exposure to the outside world, because they were very strict. They were closer to the Quakers or the Mennonites.
They were Baptists, primitive Baptists. They had unaccompanied singing in the church, and they didn't allow instruments in the church. So the pure voice is what you got. I don't even think they sang in harmony. I think they sang in unison."
Dickens loved the traditional songs and singing with her family, but she also loved harmony singing, which she would later do in abundance with Alice Gerrard and groups such as the Greenbriar Boys and the Strange Creek Singers. At the age of 16, Dickens' musical ambitions took her to Baltimore, a city that, like Cincinnati, has a strong influx of Appalachians.
"Appalachian people were going there and finding work in factories," Dickens says of Baltimore. "I know in many of the factories I worked, if you took the Southern people out of those places, they would have shut down. And we say that about the government here in Washington, too. If you took all the transplants, the Blue Ridge Mountain refugees out, you'd just have to close down the country."
In Baltimore, Dickens met Alice Gerrard, a classically trained singer from California, who shared Dickens' enthusiasm for traditional Folk songs. They soon began performing as a duo at various Folk festivals and eventually recorded their first album for Folkways in 1965. Their records were embraced by the Women's Movement and made a lasting impact on the world of Bluegrass music. At the time, however, Dickens says that the duo didn't feel as if they were breaking new ground.
"I think we were just kind of doing what we liked to do," Dickens says of her musical partnership with Gerrard. "We were going through our 'purists' stage, as we liked to call it. We really stuck to our guns and would not do anything else. And people seemed to like that. They liked that we weren't influenced by other people and just doing what we liked. And the Women's Movement jumped on it," she says, referring to the duo´s first album. ¨They really related to the women's songs that were on there."
Although Dickens and Gerrard were embraced by the Women's Movement, Dickens was not writing for anyone's agenda but her own. If she espoused any ideology, it was simply that of the traditional values of respect and kindness that she learned growing up in West Virginia. As Dickens herself says, she has no idea where her songs come from. She simply writes out of her own experience.
In the early '70s Dickens continued to work with Gerrard and also did a stint playing bass with the Greenbriar Boys, who did several festival dates with popular folk singer Joan Baez. Dickens recalls Baez fondly. However, when asked if she generally enjoyed the popularization of traditional music by the likes of Baez and Bob Dylan, she admits to some reservations.
"I never thought Bob Dylan could sing a lick," Dickens laughs. "But you know what? I got to like him, because of his poetry. I got one of his books, and I didn't put that thing down until I had read it from cover to cover. And I liked Joan back then until I started comparing it to other things that I had grown up with, and I realized that I liked the music that I had grown up with better. So I didn't really go that route. It was hard for me to understand sometimes how these people could take the same songs that we grew up with, but they could make all this money off of them and we couldn't (laughing). Joan was really nice, though, about the whole thing. And she would get these big bouquets of roses backstage every night, and I know she felt a little embarrassed about it, because she would take them apart and share them with us."
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Dickens'career continued to flourish, with critically acclaimed albums on the much respected Rounder label. And lately, Dickens says, Rounder has been eager for her to get back into the studio to cut a new album. (Her last record for the label was Heart of a Singer, with Ginny Hawker and Carol Elizabeth Jones in 1998.) Most recently, Dickens recorded Ernest Tubb's "Blue Christmas" as a duet with Seldom Scene singer Dudley Connell for an upcoming Christmas compilation. Connell is one of Dickens' favorite people to sing with, she says, and he will join her for her performance at the Appalachian Festival in Cincinnati this weekend.
"I always hire a group," Dickens says of her recent concert performances. "It's a little bit different than in the old days. In the old days, I would just come wherever I was performing, and they would just put together a group for me. By the time I got to the stage, I was worn out, because generally it's hard to find real high-caliber musicians if you are a stranger in an area. But I hire a real good band. The people I'm bringing are some of my favorite people to work with. Dudley Connell is my favorite person to sing with. I'm just so tickled that he could come."
It's been several years since Dickens played Cincinnati. The Appalachian Festival is a good way to welcome back the Queen Mother of Bluegrass Music.
HAZEL DICKENS will appear at The Appalachian Festival this weekend at Coney Island. Dickens and her band will perform on Saturday evening. She will also participate and sing at several workshops during the weekend. Info: www.hometothehills.com.