Hazel Dickens (1935 – 2011)

Updated: May 20, 2011

Born on June 1, 1935, in Mercer County, West Virginia, the eighth of eleven children, Hazel Jane Dickens is a bluegrass pioneer.

Born on June 1, 1935, in Mercer County, West Virginia, the eighth of eleven children, Hazel Jane Dickens was a bluegrass pioneer. Known for her memorable songwriting and her “hard” singing style blending a cappella Primitive Baptist and bluegrass vocal styles, Dickens has been a role model for many female musicians since the 1960s.

Through her father, Dickens was exposed to old-time banjo playing and traditional Primitive Baptist singing. Growing up in West Virginia, she listened to the Grand Ole Opry and local radio programs. She took particular interest in Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Molly O’Day, as well as in the duet singing style of such acts as the Louvin Brothers. In 1954 Dickens joined her siblings in Baltimore, hoping to find work. She quickly became a part of the area’s burgeoning music scene, singing with musicians Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard, among others. Dickens and Gerrard began singing together publicly in the early 1960s and continued to perform as a duo for more than a decade. In 1973 Rounder Records released the landmark album Hazel and Alice, which represented the breakthrough of women into the previously male-dominated bluegrass music world and which inspired a number of women to make their own contributions to blue- grass, folk, and country music. In 1996 Smithsonian Folkways reissued the duo’s early work as Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard: Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.

Dickens gained wide respect for her work as a song- writer, composing such songs as “West Virginia, My Home,” “Working Girl Blues,” “The Mannington Mine Disaster,” and “Mama’s Hand.” The latter won Song of the Year in 1996 from the International Bluegrass Music Association. In 1999 country music star Dolly Parton recorded one of Dickens’s songs, “A Few Old Memories.” Dickens has also had a major impact as a solo performer. Dickens’s dedication to the cause of the working poor— particularly coal miners and members of labor unions, welfare rights organizations, and women’s groups—has been felt in the songs she has written and in her numerous benefit concerts. Especially notable are the songs she wrote and performed in the documentary film Harlan County, USA (1976), as well as her performance in the movie Matewan (1987).

The subject of an Appalshop documentary, Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2000), Dickens was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities in 1998 by Shepherd College (Shepherdstown, West Virginia). In 1994 she received the Award of Merit from the International Bluegrass Music Association; the next year, she was inducted into the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America’s Preservation Hall of Greats, and in 2001 she was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. She died on April 22, 2011.

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MLA Style

"Hazel Dickens," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 24 Sep 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=71>

APA Style

"Hazel Dickens." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved September 24, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=71

Cover of “Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People” by Hazel Dickens