Hazel Dickens holds a distinctive place as one of America's greatest singers and songwriters, and yet she remains relatively unknown.
She was born in Appalachia in 1935 to a coal mining family. Her father and most of her relatives worked in the mines near Mercer City, West Virginia; two of her brothers died from black lung caused by years of breathing coal dust.
Raised in the Primitive Baptist Church, Dickens learned early on to sing in the unique a cappella style of that denomination - a blend of shape note singing and bluegrass-style harmonies. She was also influenced by the music of Molly O'Day, Kitty Wells, and The Carter Family.
Dickens quit school at the age of 16 and moved to Baltimore where she got a job in a factory. She did not get along well in the city; in her song "West Virginia, My Home" she sang, "It's been years now since I left there, and this city life's about got the best of me." To pass the time in the evenings, she would gather with friends and sing, at at that point in her life she was not even considering the possibility of making money as a singer.
Urged on by her family and friends, she started singing more in clubs and bars. Washington had a robust bluegrass scene, and Dickens moved there where she met Alice Gerrard. They formed the duo Hazel and Alice which gathered quite a following in Washington and the surrounding area. They took advantage of the Library of Congress to find early feminist songs. These, along with songs about coal mining and non-unionized workers, became Dickens' true passion.
While her own recordings are powerful, her songs have struck a chord with many a musician. They have been covered by artists ranging from Dolly Parton to X vocalist Exene Cervenka, from the Burns Sisters to jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Her songs were also featured in the John Sayles film Matewan where she had a cameo as a singer.
She also appears on the Dry Branch Fire Squad
2001 recording Hand Hewn
. Her a cappella duet with Ron Thomason
on "Black Lung
" is absolutely haunting.