A great and rare soul of country music, Hazel Dickens, died at the age of 75 on April 22 in Washington D.C., from complications of leukemia. I heard the news on the radio as I was driving and had to pull over to the side of the road to remember and grieve.
Coming from a poor mining family in Mercer County, West Virginia, the eighth of eleven children, in her teens Hazel made her way to Baltimore to work in the factories. She also found her way into the clubs and honky-tonks of the Baltimore-Washington area, which was a hotbed of the bluegrass on traditional country music Hazel had grown up on. It was unusual for a woman to find a place on this scene, and it was a hard, sometimes violent environment. But her determination and musicianship were unstoppable.
In the sixties, meeting up with Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard on that scene, Hazel began to perform more widely and to write clear-spoken songs that offered an alternative to the often-syrupy and romantic stuff of country music. She wrote of hard work, of women’s real lives and loves, and later of progressive political views rooted in her own experience. Songs like “Coal Tattoo” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down” were widely known in the modern miners’ movements across Appalachia.
She became known as part of the duo Hazel and Alice in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I had all their records and was aware not just how rare it was to see women fronting a band, but to hear how good their music was and how unique their writing and choice of songs. I saw Hazel often in the very early ‘70s with Hazel & Alice and with the Strange Creek Singers (which included Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz, and Lamar Grier). With Hazel and Alice she wrote powerful songs like, “Working Girl Blues,” “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me, and “West Virginia, My Home,”
In the middle-‘70s Hazel Dickens began a solo career, usually with top-level bluegrass musicians. With her inimitable mountain voice she sang her own songs, which seem to flow ceaselessly from her pen, and other classic southern songs. I had the honor of playing with her around New York City in those years. At the 1975 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, when the curtain came up and the sound faded down on Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary Harlan County U.S.A., Hazel and her band launched into her working-class anthem “They’ll Never Keep Us Down.” It was a great thrill to be playing with her on that stage.
I remember a show in New Jersey with Buck White and the Down Home Folks and our band behind Hazel. Fiddler Matt Glaser and I were in the audience, listening to the White’s excellent set. They were friends and musicians we admired. Then they invited Hazel to sit in on one number. In the moment Hazel began to sing, Matt turned to me open eyed and said, “This is the real shit.” And it was. It always was. Hazel’s singing was riveting.
A few years ago when Hazel was out in Berkeley we organized a concert with her and other West Coast bluegrass friends of just her songs. We sang some and she sang some. But the hard part was figuring out how to do just two sets of songs. Her songwriting is the best I have heard. I’d say right up there with Hank Williams, but devoid of any false sentimentality. She was so prolific, so articulate, and so herself, one could just sit back and marvel at the music. As Hazel wrote: “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song.” The precise humanity of her songwriting and the diamond-like quality of her voice will never be matched.
I just saw on the L.A. Times website that another extraordinary musician passed way yesterday at the age of 60. Phoebe Snow was a brilliant singer, a wonderful songwriter and guitarist. Growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey, studying guitar with my old friend Eric Schoenberg, she landed a recording contract with Shelter Records. The depth and originality of her 1975 first album got her on Saturday Night Live and on the cover of Rolling Stone.
But being a mother to her daughter Valerie, born with severe brain damage in 1975, took precedence over Phoebe’s commercial career. Recordings came in fits and starts over the years, but Phoebe Snow’s real job was to be mother and friend to her daughter Valerie. All along she continued to study and sing. When Valerie passed away in 2007 she began to perform again, and issued an album, Live, in 2008. Phoebe Snow suffered a brain hemorrhage in January of 2010. After surgery she was in a medically-induced coma with only brief intervals of consciousness.
In a 1975 review, critic Stephen Holden wrote of Phoebe: “On a musical level she shows the potential of becoming a great jazz singer. Among confessional pop songwriters she immediately ranks with the finest.” We will not forget her voice.
— Alan Senauke