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Working Girl BluesThe Life and Music of Hazel Dickens
By Hazel Dickens Bill C. Malone
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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Chapter OneHazel Dickens A Brief Biography
Bill C. Malone
Hazel Dickens's compelling voice and eloquent songs first reached a large American public in the soundtrack of Harlan County, USA, a 1976 Academy Award—winning documentary film that told of a protracted and dramatic strike in the eastern Kentucky coalfields. During a graphic description of the ravages wrought by pneumoconiosis midway through the documentary, Hazel is heard singing her own composition, "Black Lung," a powerful elegy inspired by the death of her brother Thurman and other coal miners. Her voice—stark, keening, and persuasive—manages to convey both the suffering felt by generations of her kinsmen and her own outrage at the greed and neglect that produced such misery. There is no mistaking the sound we hear. It is not a pathetic wail, nor a dejected cry of despair. It is an angry call for justice.
Hazel Dickens's voice and vocal style are qualities that old-time music fans have recognized since the mid-1960s, when she joined with Alice Gerrard to break new ground for women in the field of bluegrass, a domain that had been notorious for its dominance by "good old boys." Hazel and Alice truly were "pioneering women," with passionate duets and searing songs that inspired women to invade this masculine province. Their seminal duets marked the beginning of what music historian and promoter Art Menius approvingly described as "the feminization of bluegrass." Hazel's career with Alice, though, was only the most recent phase of an almost lifetime of immersion in music. She shaped and honed her style in the rough clubs and honky-tonks of Baltimore and, before that, in the music she heard at home and in the Primitive Baptist churches of West Virginia.
Hazel Jane Dickens was born in Montcalm, Mercer County, West Virginia, on June 1, 1935, the eighth of eleven children (six boys and five girls) in the family of Hillary N. and Sarah Aldora Dickens. Mercer County lies at the southern extremity of the state, right on the border with Virginia, and not too far northeast of the storied coal seams of Harlan County, Kentucky, where Florence Reece first raised the question that always confronts us when we witness the victimization of the poor or working class: "Which Side Are You On?" Mercer County embodies the paradox of Appalachian coal country. While it is a land of stark natural beauty and abundant resources, the lives of its people have too often been sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed. Its beautiful hills and valleys once held massive deposits of bituminous coal, providing jobs for struggling farmers and immense wealth for a few entrepreneurs. The county's population, though, has declined steadily since the late 1950s, when mechanization and strip mining reduced the need for labor in the mines.
According to family lore, the Dickens clan is related to the famous British novelist, Charles Dickens. Such an association seems fitting. Both Hazel and her distant British kinsman have had compassionate concerns for the poor and fine critical eyes for the details of working-class life. Unlike the perspective of the great English writer, who knew the downtrodden largely as a sympathetic outsider, Hazel's awareness comes from wholly within that culture, as a sensitive and discerning child of the poor. Her father, Hillary (generally known as H. N.), cut and sold timber for mine roofing, and her brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins worked in the mines. She grew up seeing her brothers march off to the mines each morning and return in the evening with their faces and clothes covered with coal dust. Well before she left the hills of home, Hazel had learned an even more searing truth: that the coal dust had also seeped into their lungs.
Hardworking men like her father and brothers were exploited for their labor but were undervalued as human beings. Except when they exercised their rights at the polls or walked off their jobs to demand better treatment from their bosses, they had little voice in society. H. N. was able to exercise his authority outside of the workplace in two areas where working-class men could dominate: home and pulpit. At home, he was a stern, unyielding husband and father who asserted total and unquestioned command over his household. In the Primitive Baptist church, he was an eloquent preacher and a strong singer, and his congregation valued his leadership. During the brief moments of his sermon, no one could question his authority or his worth.
Mother Sarah was quiet, submissive, and almost always deferential to her husband. She devoted her life to all of her eleven children, but was particularly close to her frail and sickly daughter Hazel. Hazel describes the incident that epitomized and strengthened that relationship in her comments about her award-winning song, "Mama's Hand." Fearing for the life of her three-month-old daughter, who would not take her mother's milk, Sarah bundled Hazel up, carried her across the mountain to the railhead, and successfully sought out the aid of a doctor in a nearby town. The close bond that developed between mother and daughter is memorialized not only in the song written by Hazel, but also in another one inspired by the incident called "Carry Me across the Mountain."
The Dickens family sought, found, and affirmed its identity through religion and music. Hazel insists that she is not very religious, and has in fact written and recorded very few religious songs. But it is easy to see the ways in which religion shaped her life and musical style. The theology of the Primitive Baptist church permeated her youth. Primitive Baptists stress the fellowship of the original New Testament church and practice a direct simplicity reflected in their unadorned church buildings and rituals. Unlike most of their Protestant brethren in the South, they reject evangelism, arguing that God has already predestined people's fates. Church services, led by unordained preachers, dwell on the fellowship of believers and the unlimited majesty of God. Rejecting any man-made idea or institution that is not explicitly sanctioned by the Bible, Primitive Baptists exclude musical instruments from their church services. They believe that the human voice is the only instrument required for the worship of God.
Hazel eventually rejected the strictures of the church, feeling that the fatalism inherent in its theology and the tendency to attribute all good things to the wondrous workings of God diminished the worth and potential of human beings. She felt that such a restrictive theology inhibited people, preventing them from seeing the utility of their own actions. On the other hand, she revered the democracy of the church and recalls with great affection the fellowship and love exhibited by church people for each other—the communion and camaraderie, for example, exhibited by the "brothers" and "sisters" as they greeted each other on Sunday mornings or repaired to each other's homes for a noon meal. And, of course, she was powerfully impressed by the rough and lusty expression of equality heard in the music of the church. Singers generally sang in unison, eschewing harmony probably because they felt that "pretty singing" glorified the singer instead of the song and its spiritual message. Hazel vividly recalls the powerful singing of her father, regretting that she has never been able to replicate his manner of dwelling on notes and "turning" the syllables in marvelous ways. Songs heard in church—such as "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" and "When I Can Read My Titles Clear"—taken most often from D. H. Goble's venerable songbook, Primitive Baptist Hymn Book (1887), glorified God and noted the futility of man's actions. Primitive Baptist lyrics reminded worshipers of the evanescence of life, the certainty of death, and the promise of heavenly reward. This was a tough-minded religion entirely appropriate to the spiritual needs of a people who lived hard and unadorned lives.
Like religion, music insinuated itself into Hazel's consciousness from the very beginning. The music of the church was important, but it was not the only force that shaped her life. H. N. had been a strong drop-thumb banjo player in his youth, and his religious convictions did not prevent him from loving and appreciating the music of this world. Hazel awakened each morning to the music of the radio, played loudly because H. N. loved it that way. He was particularly fond of any kind of music that featured the banjo. Consequently, musicians such as Uncle Dave Macon, Lily May Ledford, and Cousin Emmy (Joy May Carver) ranked high in his pantheon. Above all, he encouraged music among his children. The family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and to the Carter Family on Mexican border broadcasts. Hazel still cherishes the Carter Family's music. Her guitar style is modeled on that of Maybelle Carter, and she regularly includes songs from the Carter Family repertoire in her concerts. The radio also brought more modern country songs into the Dickens's household, and by the time Hazel left home for Baltimore, she and her brothers had become immersed in the music of people like Roy Acuff, the Callahan Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Ernest Tubb.
Hazel exhibited her own musical talents quite early. Her father loved to hear her sing "Man of Constant Sorrow"; when she was a small child, he called her out often (generally to the embarrassment of the shy young girl) to sing the song for visitors and relatives. She also recalls singing an Ernest Tubb song, "I'd Die before I'd Cry over You," in one of her elementary school classes, to the considerable consternation of her teacher, who had hoped for something with a bit more "quality" to it. Hazel clearly loved a broad range of country music, from the very traditional to the honky-tonk melodies of Texas. To this day she still proudly displays on the wall of her apartment a framed picture of the great Texas country and western singer George Jones. Very early in her life, Hazel also began collecting songs, some painstakingly written down in composition books and others clipped from the pages of song magazines. This immersion in song lyrics soon inspired Hazel's attempts to write her own songs, a portent of the distinguished career that lay ahead of her. By the time she left home in 1954, she had already acquired a vast repertory of songs learned from family, the radio, and magazines like Country Song Roundup.
Although religion could sustain folks through hard times and music could provide diversion, neither could forestall the disintegration of the Dickens family's way of life and the breakup of their home. The mechanization of the coal industry after World War II and the consequent spread of hard times accentuated the flight of mountain folk to the industrial promises of Cincinnati, Akron, Dayton, Detroit, and other northern cities. After 110 years of uninterrupted growth, the population of Mercer County peaked at 78,000 in 1950. Things went from bad to worse during the grim 1950s as coal production became dominated by strip mining, and Mercer County lost population during the next four decades. The Dickens family moved frequently, usually to smaller houses, and finally into a sharecropper's shack consisting of three rooms: a kitchen, a living room where her father's bed was, and another room "full of beds" where everyone else slept. One by one, members of the Dickens clan began to relocate to Baltimore, one of the most popular destinations for transplanted West Virginia hill folk.
Eventually, even H. N. and Sarah made the move to join their children in the city but found no real comfort or economic security there. Hazel briefly had joined the exodus to the city in about 1951 at the age of sixteen. Then, after returning to West Virginia a short time later, she made a permanent move in 1954. Her sister Velvie, who had been living and working in Baltimore since the war (first as a shipyard welder and later as a factory hand), encouraged her to move, telling her about all the creature comforts that were available in the city. Adorned in a new dress that her brother Dan bought for her at the company store, Hazel "said good-bye to that plain little mining town" and caught a Greyhound bus to Baltimore. Like many migrants, she abandoned the old home with mixed feelings; often "in the dead of the night and the still and the quiet," poignant memories returned, summoning up those ancient, dark mountains and the sight of her mother waving good-bye from the doorway as Hazel left their house to go to the bus station.
Baltimore was both exciting and forbidding. Hazel first lived with Velvie at Eutaw Place in a neighborhood of row houses that had been built earlier in the century for workers who toiled in the sail-making industry. When Hazel began making a little money, initially as a housekeeper and waitress and then as an operative in the Continental Can factory, she moved to an apartment in a neighborhood called Lower Charles Village. These neighborhoods were often described as "Little Appalachia," and Hazel lived among people very much like herself, and found comfort in their familiar dialects and customs. Despite the presence of a support network made up of people from back home, Baltimore remained a lonely, and sometimes hostile, place for a young woman who had grown up in the country. She recalls that when she first set out to find an apartment, she actually saw a sign on a building that said "No dogs or Hillbillies." Hazel came from a society that discouraged women from expressing themselves. She was an intelligent young woman, but had only gone through the seventh grade. She was sensitive, with good instincts and a latent social consciousness, but she was aware of the limitations of her education and was hesitant to divulge her deepest thoughts. Like her father, she tended to repress her feelings for long periods and then might explode in a paroxysm of anger. When she ventured out of her neighborhood, she was self-conscious about the clothes she wore, her accent, and her manners. She now speaks often of her lack of socialization back in the hills; that is, the fact that she had lived a largely isolated life, had developed few skills of interpersonal communication, and had been discouraged from expressing herself freely.
Fortunately, mentors emerged who taught Hazel how to relate to other people and how to acquire the skills necessary for survival in the new urban world. Above all, her mentors encouraged her to be confident about her own abilities. The most important of these was Alyse Taubman. Taubman was a Jewish social worker and part-time fiddler who had rejected the wealth enjoyed by her parents and had instead opted for the unorthodox lifestyle and cultural tastes of the local bohemian community. When Hazel first met her, Alyse lived with her husband, Willie Foshag, in a third-floor walkup apartment in a working-class neighborhood. At that time, Alyse was working on her degree in social work; they subsisted on the pay earned by Foshag from his current military service. She drove a Volkswagen and furnished her apartment with used furniture, much of which had been borrowed from an older and more prosperous sister. Her disapproving father, in fact, had once remarked that Alyse was his "chief contribution to charity"! She opened her home to music sessions and political and artistic discussions, and was acutely interested in the problems faced by rural migrants in Baltimore. Her home became one of the popular forums in the city where country and urban people met and shared their experiences. "Alyse," Hazel declares, "was a big mentor in my life. I think the music saved me, but she did a lot to make me a different person too." Hazel told Bill Friskics-Warren that Taubman's "support and friendship, one of the closest I've ever had, was just what I needed."
The Dickens family fascinated Alyse, in large part because they also played music. Hazel said that Taubman "had never met anybody like us." Listening intently to the political and social discussions that took place in Alyse's house, but not ready to participate in them, Hazel absorbed a wealth of ideas and perspectives: "I didn't know what they were talking about, but I tried hard to learn. I got to hear about this other way of life, and found another way to think. I just exploded during that period. I had it all stored up, like a sponge, taking everything in. It was the beginning of me being politicized."
Alyse was crucial to Hazel's socialization, but music was her salvation. She and her brothers first made music at home and then in the house parties that flourished in Baltimore. Through her brother Arnold, Hazel met a second significant mentor, Mike Seeger. Seeger had arrived in Baltimore in May 1954 and, as a conscientious objector to the Korean War, had begun a stint of "community service" as a kitchen orderly at the Mt. Wilson Tuberculosis Sanatorium. He quickly let it be known at the hospital—where he was also living and where Hazel's brother Robert was a patient—that he played music. That was quite an understatement. Seeger was just twenty-one and had been playing the guitar only since he was eighteen. But by the time he came to Baltimore, he was playing just about anything with strings on it and was on the way to becoming an extraordinary student of the music he played and sang. Robert introduced Mike to his brother Arnold, and disclosed that his family was musical. Seeger soon visited the Dickens home and brought Hazel a new dimension of musical awareness and creativity.
Excerpted from Working Girl Blues by Hazel Dickens Bill C. Malone Copyright © 2008 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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