If I were at my office, 400 miles away, I could reference Working Girl Blues, Hazel Dickens’ 2008 autobiography written with Bill Malone. Since the book can’t help, I face my own feelings as I confront the page, some 18 hours after she died at 4 AM on Good Friday, April 22. That book was the first time she associated herself with a date (1935) for her birth in Mercer County, West Virginia.
You could never escape West Virginia with Hazel even though she left in the 1950s for the hard city life of Baltimore. Those two strains fed some forty powerful songs, sweet memories of home (“Mama’s Hand,” “West Virginia, My Home”) balanced by first-hand accounts of encounters with unfettered capitalism (“They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” “Are They’re Going to Make Us Outlaws Again”) and male centric society (“Don’t Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There”). That her songs could be covered by artists as varied as retro-bluegrass singer James King (“A Few Old Memories”), Dolly Parton (ditto), the Burns Sisters (“Working Girl Blues”) and Magpie (ditto) speaks tomes about Hazel.
Her critiques of society seemed to come not from political philosophy, but a straightforward sense of right and wrong. As Ron Thomason, who covered “Black Lung” with the Dry Branch Fire Squad, put it, Hazel wasn’t a feminist, she was a humanist. She and Alice were among the pioneering women of bluegrass simply because they wanted to play and sing the music. She was about fairness, empowerment, and decent treatment of workers, not ideology. I partially recall a story of going to a party outside DC with Mike Seeger. On the way home, he told Hazel, “that party, it was a communist party.” Until that point – how I wish I could reconstruct how she said it – she had assumed it would be obvious in appearance that someone was a red, like the devil and his forked tail.
Hazel occupied spaces where few others could go. I don’t mean her tiny apartment in DC nor the Freight Hoppers carrying her in an arm chair resting on their shoulders into the packed room at the Folk Alliance Conference in 2008 to hear Kathy Mattea. I’m talking about being equally accepted in old-time, women’s, bluegrass, folk, and political music worlds, about how she could sing Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People while counting billionaire investor Warren Hellman among her ardent fans. I’m talking about a poor, shy girl from West Virginia not only appearing in two major motion pictures, but finally being the subject of Mimi Pickering’s Appalshop Film, “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song.” I am talking about someone who connected 2011 to West Virginia in 1941 with her words and her voice.
Ultimately, Hazel – the tiny woman in the old black & white photo behind three big men playing the lead bluegrass instruments – became an icon to multiple communities. Despite the power of her words and voice, she seemed frail always to me, all the way back to when I first met her in 1984, not long after she had been featured singing in John Sayles’ film Matewan. Yet 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 back then. The courage to partner with Alice Gerrard and record bluegrass albums with male sidemen in the mid-1960s, inspiring the Judds and Emmylou Harris along the way. The courage to write 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 save for odds and ends like Vern & Ray’s “To Hell With the People, To Hell With the Land.” Through Hazel’s example, I could see something of my Appalachian heroes that I did not have the privilege of meeting.
Hazel combined two of my passions – hillbilly music and political art. Hazel could be wickedly funny, easily tickled, and bluntly direct with those she thought needed it. There’s no better friend than someone you can’t intimidate who puts your well being ahead of your feelings.
Hazel was someone Ken Irwin could call from the studio when he lacked the right words to convey his thoughts to a musician. I remember clearly although it has been 20 years, Hazel, Ken, and my not-yet-wife Becky Johnson sitting around my kitchen table discussing whether Rounder should invest in a video for Alison Krauss’ “I’ve Got That Old Feeling.” Hazel would check Becky’s shoes before the IBMA Awards Show each year and picked one of Becky’s photos of her for US News & World Report.
Charles Barkley is not a role model. Hazel Dickens was a role model and so much more. Perhaps even more than with Utah Phillips, there is no one to fill the void.