Arriving at “H” in our alphabetical journey through American music, I had a few thoughts: hip-hop, Hank Williams, hammered dulcimer, house music—the list was quite eclectic and extensive! However, I decided to focus on a person whose name may not be familiar to you, but who is a pivotal artist in American music: Hazel Dickens, one of the pioneering women of bluegrass.
Hazel Dickens was born in Mercer County, West Virginia, in 1925 to a coal mining family. Although her father later became a Baptist preacher, most of her other male relatives all worked in the coal mines, many of them suffering from black lung. She was the eighth of 11 children, and started working at the textile mill across the border in Virginia when she was 13. She later followed her older sister to Baltimore, and permanently moved there in 1954.
After moving to Baltimore, Hazel found a job at a canning factory, and became close with a community of other people who had moved from coal country to the city, including members of her own family. This community brought the music of their home with them, and frequently played bluegrass and old time music together. Hazel later met Mike Seeger, who at that time was working his Alternate Service for the Korean War at the tuberculosis ward in a hospital northwest of Baltimore. Hazel’s brother also happened to be on that ward, and Seeger was interested in discovering more old time songs.
After Mike Seeger and Hazel Dickens met, Hazel became more active in the folk and old time music scene in Baltimore. She was nearly the only woman in the Baltimore bluegrass scene fronting a group. Later, she began singing with Alice Gerard, and the two found that their voices fit perfectly together. They recorded an album together in 1965 (they would record more in the years after), the first record made with women fronting a bluegrass band.
In the late 1960s and 70s, Hazel Dickens would become more involved with politically motivated songwriting, penning songs about the harsh conditions of coal miners, women’s rights, and workers’ rights. Her music was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County USA, and she also appeared in the films Matewan and Songcatcher. Hazel was entered into the West Virginia Hall of Fame, and was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 2001.
Here are some materials about Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and bluegrass music in audio and braille that are available to borrow from the NLS collection:
Music Appreciation Recordings:
Banjos, Breakdowns, and Bluegrass (DBM00340)
Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways (DBM03988)
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard: Pioneering Women of Bluegrass (DBM03671)
Sounds to Grow On: Program #6 – Bluegrass (DBM04069)
Tapestry of the Times: Episode 30 (DBM04043)
Tapestry of the Times: Episode 19 (DBM04032)
Tapestry of the Times: Episode 9 (DBM04022)
Tapestry of the Times: Episode 6 (DBM04019)
Tapestry of the Times: Episode 2 (DBM04015)
5-string Banjo (DBM00426)
Basic Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar (DBM03569)
Bluegrass Banjo (DBM00414)
Bluegrass Mandolin (DBM02192)
Clawhammer Banjo: 1 & 2 (DBM03636)
Flatpick country guitar (DBM00473)
Flatpicking Fiddle Tunes (DBM02191)
Flat-picker’s Guitar Guide: An Advanced Instruction Record (DBM03698)
Get Started on Bluegrass and Country Guitar! (DBM03571)
50 Tunes for Fiddle: Traditional, Old Time, Bluegrass, & Celtic Solos, Volume 1 (BRM37498)
The American Fiddler: Old-Time, Bluegrass, Cajun and Texas Style Fiddle Tunes of the USA (BRM37047)
Flatpicker’s Guitar Guide (BRM36152)
Please note that all materials listed above are available to borrow by mail, and those with links are available through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.