Saturday, April 23, 2011

Remembering Hazel (1935-2011)

Me listening to Jeremy on the fiddle at Margie's wedding. Photo by John Cohen
When I was a student at Antioch in 1958 I used to hang out at a ramshackle clapboard house that was practically on campus and the source of consternation for the college administration and the Yellow Springs "civic improvement association". A non-functioning Bendix washer made the yard closer to Appalachia than Central Ohio suburbia and the sounds of guitar picking were pretty much always heard through the pushed-out-screen door.  It was where Jeremy Foster and Alice Gerrard Foster lived with their red-haired toddler Coralee. I was the eldest of four girls and had recently left my Tennessee family and my own younger red haired sisters and being at the Fosters was the closest thing to home for me.

One afternoon the Fosters were especially excited-- "Stick around," Jeremy said--a friend was coming by-- her name was Hazel and she was from West Virginia. Jeremy and Alice weren't from the mountains-- Jeremy was from outside DC and Alice was a California Valley girl. But they loved country music. REAL authentic country music, not, as Jeremy used to put it, "Fuck music" of the sort that co-eds from Greenwich Village moaned in their Antioch dorm rooms.

As Alice and Jeremy bustled about changing sheets on the pull-out couch, it was clear that they thought Hazel was the real thing. I imagined a Dorothea Lange sort of hillbilly, earthy type, maybe dressed in a flour sack shift, perhaps driving a rattletrap Ford pick-up. I couldn't wait! After several hours of anxious expectation, a car did pull in to the Foster's drive way, not a hillbilly truck, but the biggest, fanciest limo I had ever seen. Out stepped a woman with a bee-hive hair-do, heavy make-up and a shiny red dress with a big slit up the thigh. Hazel wasn't coming directly from the mountains of West Virginia, but from Baltimore where she was working the bars.

Jeremy and Alice were overjoyed to see her and laughed at my surprise. Within a few minutes of driving up, she took out a guitar and she and Alice picked and sang a Carter Family song together. I think it was "Chawing, chewing gum..." Yes, Hazel was authentic. She was the best singer I had ever heard and I sat with Coralee on my lap for the rest of the afternoon listening to an amazing song swap.

Jeremy died a few years later in an accident on a DC beltway. Alice and Hazel ended up forming a team and recording several LPs with many original songs. Coralee is now a physician in Ithaca, I think, and Alice is living in the mountains of North Carolina. And Hazel died today.

Hazel Dickens, 1935 -2011 An Obituary 

by John Pietaro

The high lonesome sound that touched so many, so
deeply, could only have been born of both strife and
fight-back in equal proportions. Singer/guitarist Hazel
Dickens' sound was probably about as high and lonesome
as one got. The soundtrack of "Harlan County USA"
introduced her to the many outside of the country home
she remained a visceral part of, even long after she'd
physically moved on. Dickens didn't just sing the
anthems of labor, she lived them and her place on many
a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads,
embedded her into the cause.

She was born on June 1, 1935 in Montcalm, West
Virginia, one of the faceless towns dotting Appalachian
coal country. Her father was an amateur banjo player
who worked as a truck driver for the mines and ran a
Primitive Baptist church each Sunday. Here was where
Hazel first began singing, unaccompanied out of
necessity and the laws of tradition. But the devotional
songs melded with the mountain tunes and ballads,
creating a unique personal style. Bearing a rough, at
times coarse timber, her voice eagerly reflected the
broken topography about her as well as the pains of
poverty in her midst. In a family of thirteen residing
in a three-room shack, the music was far from distant
symbolism for her.

At age 16 Dickens relocated to Baltimore where she
encountered Mike Seeger on the still fledgling folk
scene. Seeger, working alongside his parents Charles
and Ruth Crawford Seeger in the Library of Congress
Archive of American Folksong, began performing with the
Dickens family trio, but it was Hazel's association
with Seeger's wife Alice Gerrard that offered notable
area for impact on the music. The duet of Hazel & Alice
recorded original compositions and deeply explored the
feminist archetypes in Appalachian song.  Dickens was
sure to not only raise issues such as the need for
equal pay for women workers, but to actively fight for
these on and off stage. Among the titles she penned
were "Working Girl Blues" and "Don't Put Her Down, You
Helped Put Her There". She also composed the noted
"Black Lung", which called on the miners' plight back
home. Like Aunt Mollie Jackson before her, Dickens was
able to capture the struggle of the moment in song, and
this was most evident in her on-screen performances in
celebrated films such as "Matewan" and "Song Catcher"
and her work on the above noted "Harlan County USA".
The union cause was her cause and it lived anew each
time she conjured a topical song set to a melody that
sounded as old as the ages.

A clear heir to the Appalachian stylings of Aunt Mollie
Jackson and Sarah Ogan, Dickens became a respected
figure and was a featured singer at folk festivals for
decades. Since the 1970s, Dickens had performed with a
wide array of musicians including Emmy Lou Harris,
Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt, Mary Chapin Carpenter
and Rosanne Cash. In 2007 she was inducted into the
West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Dickens was active as
recent as last month when she was seen attending the
South By Southwest Festival in Austin. Hazel Dickens
died of complications of pneumonia in Washington DC on
April 22. In the blackened crawlspaces of West
Virginia's mines the lament was a deafening silence as
the mountain peaks seemed to bow in solemn reverence.

-John Pietaro is a musician, writer and labor organizer
from New York

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