Fare Thee Well, Hazel Dickens 鈥 Slip Away Like A Bird n Flight

I have a memory of hearing聽 Hazel Dickens with Alice Gerard and Mike Seeger in Yellow Springs sometime in the late 60s or early 70s. Even if it鈥檚 only one more apocryphal memory based on listening to magnetic tape, or an archival Kelly Hall concert broadcast on the radio, I internalized it deeply. Hazel Dickens鈥 sharp, keening voice聽 carries me back to my grandpa鈥檚 farm in the Appalachian foothills of my childhood. It surfaces聽 like spring water pouring out of Blackhand sandstone below the ridge top.聽 And it echoes with the lives of tough-minded hard-knock mountain women like my Grandma Ona Willis.

When I heard that Hazel Dickens died today at age 75, I thought immediately of the poetic line in her song, 鈥淲est Virginia, My Home.鈥 In the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet, I slip away like a bird in flight/Back to those hills, the place that I call home.

Kathy Mattea sings harmony with Hazel on this 2008 performance at the Folk Alliance International Festival, which also honored Hazel Dickens in 2002. NPR paid tribute today, as well as the New York Times:

Long revered by feminists, Ms. Dickens鈥檚 music, and especially her songwriting, assumed an even more political cast almost as soon as she began pursuing a solo career in the wake of the duo鈥檚 breakup in 1976. Several of her songs, including 鈥淐oal Tattoo鈥 and the rousing organizer鈥檚 anthem 鈥淭hey Never Keep Us Down,鈥 served as the musical voice of conscience for Barbara Kopple鈥檚 Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, 鈥淗arlan County, U.S.A.鈥

Whether she performed solo or with a country-style band, Ms. Dickens鈥檚 atavistic mountain inflection and delivery were inimitable, and never so much as when she sang a cappella on 鈥Black Lung,鈥 a harrowing dirge she wrote for her oldest brother, who died of that disease. In 1987 she sang another a cappella ballad, 鈥Hills of Galilee,鈥 during a funeral scene in 鈥淢atewan,鈥 John Sayles鈥檚 movie about coal mining in Appalachia.

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