As a girl, she stayed inside one cold winter because she didn’t have a coat. Her homes were often mountain shacks, meals were made of bread and beans, and her dreams of something better came bound in the Sears, Roebuck catalog that arrived at her family’s Mercer County, W.Va., mailbox each spring. “We called them wish books,” says Hazel Dickens.
Eventually, Dickens’ dreams led her out of Appalachia’s coal country and into country music. Her voice, austere and strong, has cut its way through 10 LPs and now blows like a strong March wind through Matewan, director John Sayles’s new movie based on a 1920 West Virginia coal strike. Dickens appears on-camera for a moment in the film, singing an a cappella hymn during a miner’s hillside burial. For the novice actress, the setting was familiar. “I have lost four of my brothers, two with black-lung disease,” says Dickens, one of eleven children. “I thought about the other funerals I had attended and how I felt at those times.”
Sayles first contacted Dickens about four years ago, inspired by her sound-track recording for another movie about mining strife, Harlan County, U.S.A. “Hazel’s from a coal camp, and her father was a hard-shell preacher,” he says. “I think some of her singing talent has that authenticity.” Although her onscreen time in Matewan lasts only a few seconds, Dickens’ presence, through her music, endures throughout the film. The graveside scene was done in a single take, says Sayles, and a second was shot only in case the film tore. “She did it like Hazel does everything,” says the director. “When she finished, the extras were in tears.”
The roots of Dickens’ evocative powers lie in the coal-hard upbringing that began some 50 years ago. A Primitive Baptist preacher, her father earned the family’s food money by hauling shoring timbers for local mines. Her mother tended to Hazel and her siblings, struggling to make meager ends meet. “She would just say, ‘Eat what’s set in front of you and ask no questions; this is the way we are,’ ” recalls Dickens. “It instilled a certain amount of pride and acceptance. She made us hold our heads up.”
Among the family’s few possessions was a radio, and “my earliest memory is that I would wake up to this blast of music coming through the house,” she says. “My father liked it loud. There were four things in his life that could never be watered down: good country music, religion, politics and coffee.” Political volume took care of itself, thanks to the never-ending labor wars at the nearby mines. “They always had strikes and picket lines,” says Dickens. “As a girl, I was never allowed to be part of it. But I knew. There was always that kind of unrest.”
Before reaching high school, Dickens left for Baltimore and began a succession of jobs in factories that made tin cans, electric irons and paper cups. One of her brothers, suffering from tuberculosis, was hospitalized nearby, and one day he introduced her to Mike Seeger, younger brother of folksinger Pete Seeger. “Her face was much older than she was,” says Seeger, then a conscientious objector serving as a hospital attendant. “She was quiet, but I could tell she had a pretty sharp tongue and a sharp wit to go with it.” She could also sing. The young Seeger began playing at casual get-togethers with Dickens, then teamed with her and others for local bar dates. She had limited experience with an instrument, she recalls, until one night “one of the guys handed me a guitar and said, ‘Grab an A chord and hang on.’ ”
She has, in effect, never let go. After joining up with Alice Gerrard, a college-educated singer with a passion for mountain music, she and her new partner were signed by Folkways Records in 1965. On the road, she sang at United Mine Worker rallies, at Southern civil rights benefits and, together with Gerrard, built up a loyal feminist following with songs like Working Girl Blues (“I’m tired of working my life away/ And giving somebody else all of my pay”). Her unschooled voice, echoing with Southern hollows and hard living, held little appeal for Nashville’s pop-conscious recording execs. She switched to Cambridge-based Rounder Records in 1973 and went solo five years later, but her passion for music of the working poor remained unchanged. So did her level of stardom. Her records were modest sellers at best, and until now, she says, her singing in Harlan County, U.S.A. brought “the most recognition I ever got.”
These days, Dickens’ repertoire includes a mix of country ballads and bluegrass tunes, union anthems and blue-collar laments. Sticking to her musical vision has meant “a commitment to poverty,” she says, noting that “grassroots musicians get one teeny little fraction of what rock musicians get.” Dickens now lives alone in a dark, one-bedroom co-op in Washington, D.C. (“kind of midway between North and South”), whose furnishings, like her songs, are sensible and unadorned. Married for three years in the ’60s to a Baltimore youth counselor, she commutes regularly to Boston and longtime boyfriend Ken Irwin, 43, a co-owner of Rounder Records. “We both have a very strong social awareness and agree on many things about society and the system,” she says. “I saw a lot of hard times with families who had to live from hand to mouth.”
Hopes of changing the system keep her on the road, performing at human rights and union rallies, folk festivals and schools. Her latest album, It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, came out in May, and already she is planning her next LP. “I’m leaning toward an old-time record to recapture the older songs,” she says, adding that it may include new compositions of her own as well. Her goal, she says, is simply to produce “songs that are worthy, songs that have something to say.” That, of course, is what her circle of fans has come to expect.