Hazel Dickens lived a hard life. From the mining county, Mercer, West Virginia to a trek to Baltimore at age 19 to find work, she knew hardship. The 8th child born to a family of 12, her upbringing in abject poverty was characterized by no modern conveniences. She lived the hardships of the mine workers, the exploitation of the mill workers and the suppression of woman’s rights. Her calling was to record these histories through her expressive songs.
Growing up in rural Appalachia, Hazel was significantly influenced by the gospel music of her Baptist upbringing, the traditions of mountain music in the hills of WV and the early country music of the Grand Ole Opry. She is considered a legend and a major influence on the woman of bluegrass and closely related acoustic music.. Hazel’s legacy, however, is not strictly as a bluegrass artist but she’s left behind a trail of original compositions stylistically ranging from mountain ballads to social conscious songs to bluegrass to gospel to blues. For her contributions to music, Hazel has been recognized with many prestigious awards including being the first woman to receive IBMAs Merit award. Her work is featured in several films and documentaries.
There were many factors that made Hazel stand out and be recognized as a musical influence. There was raw emotion in her voice and her song writing is filled with conviction and honesty. She had a plaintive style vocally and lyrically but told her stories with the truth of knowing the realities of her cultural influences. The pure honesty of her songs spoke volumes to the people. Her voice was a call to action to change the plight of the coal miners in the true traditions of a protest songwriter. She was also a forerunner to the feminist movement in speaking out against the oppression of woman in the workplace.
Up until her death on April 22, 2011, Hazel continue to be a working folk artist attending 2011 IBMA awards in fine form and performing at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX where she was well received by a younger generation of listeners. She was working on a new project with Round Records which reportedly is complete but a release date has yet to be announced. Rounder is also working on a tribute project to include such talents as Claire Lynch, Roseanne Cash, Elvis Costello and EmmyLou Harris. Hazel spirit has passed on from this earth but her legacy will remain iconic in the history of America’s Folk Music.