By Bruce Sylvester
Hazel Dickens, the stark voice of the Appalachian coal country, died after a short illness on Fri., April 22, at the Washington Home Community Hospice in Washington, DC. She was 75 and was still performing in her final months.
Her death has been reported by the Bluefield (West Virginia) Daily Telegraph and the Sing Out! magazine website (www.singout.org) among other sources.
The eighth of 11 children in a mining family, she was born June 1, 1935, in Montcalm, West Virginia. Her father was a Primitive Baptist preacher and banjo player. As an adult, she became part of the folk/country/bluegrass scene in the Baltimore/Washington area. She recorded with the Strange Creek Singers (including Mike and Alice Gerrard Seeger, Tracy Schwartz and Lamar Greer) on Arhoolie, then with Alice Gerrard (as Hazel & Alice) on Folkways and Rounder and then solo on Rounder. Like Ralph Stanley’s, Dickens’ singing was true American primitive. Her style predated bluegrass.
Naomi Judd has said that a Hazel & Alice LP was the inspiration for the Judds’ sound.
In person, Dickens was unassuming and gracious, while her hard-hitting songs (often from her own pen) looked unflinchingly at mining, labor, women’s and environmental issues. Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless have followed in Dickens’ (and, earlier, Aunt Molly Jackson’s) footsteps in singing of coal communities’ situations.