Hazel Dickens (1935-2011) was a pioneering female bluegrass artist, and a powerful composer with a strong social conscience. In the 1960s, she and her musical partner Alice Gerrard helped break the gender barrier in the bluegrass genre; in the '70s Dickens devoted herself to publicizing the plight of impoverished coal miners in her native Appalachia, and wrote several songs that became anthems for their cause, including "Coal Tattoo" and "Black Lung." Here's a quick look at her work...
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard "Pioneering Women Of Bluegrass" (Smithsonian Folkways, 1996)
The title says it all -- there are plenty of great Hazel & Alice records out there (thank you, Rounder Records!), but this disc is a special look into their early years, as trailblazers on the traditionally male-dominated bluegrass circuit of the early 1960s. ("Hey, they play pretty good, for girls!") Their penchant for older, more traditional material is already evident, but what's also great is, that at this period, they were still into hot picking, as well as old-timey folklore. Includes material from their first album, Who's That Knocking. Highly recommended!
Hazel Dickens "A Few Old Memories" (Rounder, 1987)
A best-of set drawn from Hazel's three solo albums
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard "Who's That Knocking" (Folkways, 1965)
Strange Creek Singers "Strange Creek Singers" (Arhoolie, 1972)
An old-timey classic, joining Hazel & Alice with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz of the New Lost City Ramblers. They open the album with a shape-note song ("When I Can Read My Titles Clear"), just to let us know that they've got the real low-down on this mountain music... Then they gradually ease into more melodic, bluegrassy terrain. It's great stuff from start to finish, originally recorded between 1968-70.
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard "Hazel & Alice" (Rounder, 1973)
Hazel Dickens "Won't You Come Sing For Me" (1973)
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard "Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard" (Rounder, 1975)
Hazel Dickens "Hard Hitting Songs For Hard Hit People" (Rounder, 1980)
Hazel Dickens "By The Sweat Of My Brow" (Rounder, 1983)
Another stunning album featuring song after song exploring the hardships, losses and endurance of the working class poor. The title track, written by Jack Rhodes, is a stunner, a welcome throwback to old-fashioned left-leaning social protest songs, and which perfectly compliments the original songs and well-chosen cover tunes that stud the rest of the album. It's territory that Dickens has covered before, but this album has a compactness and sureness about it that will stop you in your tracks. Several songs feature a bunch of "usual suspects" bluegrass super-pickers, studio cats such as Jerry Douglas, Blaine Sprouse, Dudley Connell, etc. -- Hazel Dickens is one of the few modern artists who seems capable of getting these guys to play her music, and not theirs... This record is wonderfully restrained, and quietly powerful. Recommended!
Hazel Dickens "It's Hard To Tell The Singer From The Song" (Rounder, 1987)
Perhaps the most overtly "bluegrass" Hazel Dickens album, at least outside of the early Hazel & Alice albums in the 1960s... Dickens takes full advantage of talented superpickers such as Jerry Douglas and Russ Barenberg, framing a solid set of heartsongs and hard-time ballads with sweet picking, kept on just this side of rugged & rootsy, matching Hazel's own vocal style. Although she doesn't sing in the prettified, perfected style that's all the rage these days, Hazel's voice conveys more emotion and conviction than a truckload of Nashville Barbie dolls. With weepers like "A Few Old Memories: and "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" alongside left-leaning gospel numbers such as "Will Jesus Wash The Bloodstains From Your Hands," this album is a winner from beginning to end. Highly recommended.
"Working Girl Blues: The Life And Music Of Hazel Dickens"
Written by Hazel Dickens & Bill C. Malone
(University of Illinois Press, 2008)
Hick Music Index