Hazel Dickens Biography

Hazel Jane Dickens, 1 June 1935, Mercer County, West Virginia, USA. Dickens was the eighth of 11 children in a family that struggled hard to make a living in an area where coalmining was the sole industry. Dickens learned to play guitar and bass and developed a great interest in not only the local music but also music by more modern singers she heard on the radio, such as Ernest Tubb and Kitty Wells. Her father, as well as working for the mining industry and locally as a Baptist minister, was also a banjoist of some ability. However, in the early 50s, his apparent reluctance to let his own or any of his family’s musical interests diversify from the traditional folk/bluegrass artists’ music prevalent in the area, saw Dickens relocate to Baltimore. Here, she eventually met Mike Seeger and accompanied by her brothers, Robert and Arnold, they began performing locally. She later became a member of several other bands, including the Greenbriar Boys, usually playing bass and singing lead or harmony vocals. In the early 60s, she met Alice Gerrard, and the two formed a partnership that saw them write songs about various aspects of life as well as performing together at numerous folk festivals all over the south. In 1972, for a time, they joined forces with Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz and Lamar Grier to perform as the Strange Creek Singers. After the partnership ended amicably, writing much of her own material, she pursued a solo career that gained momentum when four of her original songs were featured in an award-winning documentary on coalmining called Harlan County, USA. Dickens was greatly impressed by the earlier protest and anti-Union songs of Aunt Molly Jackson and her half-sister, Sarah Ogan Gunning, and soon developed a similar reputation herself in many quarters. During the 80s, she recorded albums for Rounder Records and had some of her songs featured in films, includingCoal Mining Women (1984) andMatewan (1987), even making a brief singing appearance in the latter herself. She became a leading supporter of events to benefit coalminers and union workers, and as such, she has appeared at countless festivals and protest events, not only all over the USA but also in many other countries including Canada, Japan and Australia. By their work both together and apart, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard have done much to influence countless traditional music fans as well as pioneering the role of women in bluegrass, which encouraged later artists such as Emmylou Harris. In 1994, Hazel Dickens was the first artist to be honoured with the Merit Award for contribution to bluegrass music by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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