I have a memory of hearing Hazel Dickens with Alice Gerard and Mike Seeger in Yellow Springs sometime in the late 60s or early 70s. Even if it’s 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’ sharp, keening voice carries me back to my grandpa’s farm in the Appalachian foothills of my childhood. It surfaces like spring water pouring out of Blackhand sandstone below the ridge top. 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, “West Virginia, My Home.” 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’s 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’s breakup in 1976. Several of her songs, including “Coal Tattoo” and the rousing organizer’s anthem “They Never Keep Us Down,” served as the musical voice of conscience for Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, “Harlan County, U.S.A.”
Whether she performed solo or with a country-style band, Ms. Dickens’s atavistic mountain inflection and delivery were inimitable, and never so much as when she sang a cappella on “Black Lung,” a harrowing dirge she wrote for her oldest brother, who died of that disease. In 1987 she sang another a cappella ballad, “Hills of Galilee,” during a funeral scene in “Matewan,” John Sayles’s movie about coal mining in Appalachia.