Remembering Hazel Dickens: A Feminist Bluegrass Voice

Originally published on July 1, 2014 12:09 pm

Folksinger Hazel Dickens, a pioneer for women in bluegrass who influenced the likes of Naomi Judd and Emmylou Harris, died Friday. She was 75.

In 1987, Dickens spoke with Terry Gross about her appearance in Matewan, John Sayles' film about a rural coal-mining strike in 1920s West Virginia. The film was shot near the coal town where Dickens grew up, in Mercer County, W.V., and featured Dickens singing the kind of songs she sang in real life: a cappella ballads about the mining life and the struggles of the poor, women and other workers.

One of 11 children, Dickens grew up in a coal-mining family. She listened to Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on the radio and sang in her church. When she was 16, she left her large family and headed north to Baltimore to work in a factory.

"I didn't intentionally reject that part of my life," Dickens told Terry Gross. "Since some of the mines closed down there, there wasn't a lot of work, which meant there was even less work for women, because women usually did ... factory or waitress work."

In the 1960s, Dickens began to perform her own compositions on the bluegrass and folk circuits with Alice Gerrard. Known as Hazel and Alice, the duo performed songs steeped in Americana about the struggles of everyday life, particularly for women.

"There did seem to be a large space there that women like me and other women that were coming along could fill," Dickens said. "And that was to give other women that didn't want to sing the old traditional songs — to give them something that they could identify with and something that they could sing. I've had many women tell me that I was the only woman who came along that was writing songs that they could sing within the tradition."

Hazel Dickens received a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008. She was also a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Honor.

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The Appalachian folk singer Hazel Dickens died Friday of complications of pneumonia. She was 75. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of my interview with her.

She built her career singing about the struggles of the poor, women, coal miners, and other workers. She first became known as half of the duo Hazel and Alice, with Alice Gerrard. After they broke up in 1976, Dickens continued writing songs and performing. Her songs "Cold Tattoo" and "I'll Never Keep Us Down" were used in the Oscar Award-winning documentary about coal miners, "Harlan County, U.S.A." In 1994, Dickens was the first woman to receive the International Bluegrass Music Association's Merit Award.

I spoke with her in 1987, after she sang in the John Sayles film "Matewan," about a 1920 coal-mining strike in the early days of the union. The film was set in Matewan, West Virginia, not far from the coal town where Dickens grew up. Here's a song from the soundtrack.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. HAZEL DICKENS (Singer): (Singing) You can tell I'm in the country, tell I'm in the town. The miners down in Mingo lay their shovels down. We won't pull another pail out, (unintelligible) another ton. Or lift another finger till the union we have won. Stand up boys, let the bosses know. Turn your buckets over, turn your lanterns low. There's fire in our hearts and fire in our soul. But there ain't gonna be no fire in the hole...

GROSS: Hazel Dickens told me that when she was 16 she left her large family and headed north.

Ms. DICKENS: I didn't intentionally reject that part of my life. Since some of the mines had started to close down around there, there was not a lot of work, which meant there was even less work for women, you know, because women usually did - if there was a factory or waitress work. If you were lucky, you got office work, but I didn't have that much education.

GROSS: Were all the men in your family mine workers?

Ms. DICKENS: Almost all of them. My father had a truck and he hauled timber for the mines, and I guess the larger part of my brothers became coal miners and all my brother-in-laws were coal-miners.

GROSS: Were they in unions?

Ms. DICKENS: Oh, yes. Yeah, everybody was in unions. And they were very, very strong, staunch supporters of the unions, and everybody was a Democrat. And almost everyone was a Baptist.

GROSS: What kind of music did you grow up listening to in the house?

DICKENS: Hardcore country. I mean, very primitive stuff, because that's what -my father was a very dominant person and that's the kind he liked and he didn't want us to listen to anything else.

GROSS: So when did you start getting exposed to other music?

Ms. DICKENS: Probably not until I left home and came to the city. And it was quite a while, I guess, that I began listening to the radio in the city, and then were then playing, you know, like top 40. And I began listening to more country-western that was updated.

GROSS: When you started to sing, was it a local bars?

Ms. DICKENS: Yeah. Uh-huh.

GROSS: Did you have to learn how to handle yourself at those bars? It can get rough.

Ms. DICKENS: Yeah, I would just run in the restroom and hide.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you ever have any trouble with the male customers?

Ms. DICKENS: Yeah. Actually, as much by some of the musicians as I did the male customers, you know, being chased around the back room by fiddle players and all that. But I was - even though I was very small, I was probably like maybe a hundred and - weighed about a hundred and five or 10 - I could hold my own really well. I was very quick-tempered and a real smart-aleck. Although I was shy, I still would defend myself.

GROSS: Physically or verbally?

Ms. DICKENS: Both.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, if they came too close. I mean, I wasn't above hitting somebody if they needed it.

GROSS: You eventually started singing songs that updated the musical tradition that you were part of, and some of those songs are songs that you wrote, like "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There" and "Working Girl Blues." Were the traditional songs not expressing what you wanted to say?

Ms. DICKENS: Well, many of them did not. They just weren't songs written for women and - not that, you know, a lot of the traditional songs women can sing. And I love singing the traditional songs. I've always tried to show a lot of respect for the tradition from which I came and to help keep it alive. But they did seem to be, you know, at least a large space there that women like me and other women that were coming along could feel. And that was to give other women that didn't want to sing all the old traditional songs, give them something that they could identify with and something that they wanted to, you know, could sing.

GROSS: Hazel Dickens, recorded in 1987. She died Friday at the age of 75. We'll close with her singing her song, "They'll Never Keep Us Down."

(Soundbite of song, "They'll Never Keep Us Down")

Ms. HAZEL DICKENS: (Singing) United we stand, divided we fall. For every dime they give us a battle must be fought. So working people, use your power, the key to liberty, don't support that rich man's style of luxury. There ain't no way they can ever keep us down. Oh no. Ain't no way they can ever keep us down. We won't be bought, we won't be sold, to be treated right, well, that's our goal. And there ain't no way they can ever keep us down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.