The venerable Ron Thomason has said in describing Hazel Dickens, “She never let questions of pitch or timing get in the way of the music.” He’s also said that “She brought back the chill, the feeling of excitement and power” that he’d first felt upon hearing original bluegrass music. Hazel walked into a men’s music and made all the men sit down and listen.
In many senses, this music is primitive. It is far less sophisticated than all the ‘progressive’ bluegrass and new acoustic music that you’ve come to expect from this blog. But this primitive, direct, and unadorned quality gives the music its unearthly power to cut straight to the bone. Entirely devoid of pretention, presumption, prediction, or predication.
And that’s the way it should be. These songs are real songs, about real feelings and real people in real hard situations. It would be an insult to pretty-up the music. Sometimes music has to hurt to work. And this music hurts, oh it hurts so good. It hurts like the hard earth, and it also carries a redemption like the sun shining for just a minute into the deep black depths of a choking coal mine.
Hazel Dickens – Biographyby John Bush
Protest and folksinger Hazel Dickens grew up the eighth of 11 children in a large, poor mining family in West Virginia, and she has since used elements of country and bluegrass to spread truth about two causes close to her heart: the plight of non-unionized mineworkers and feminism, born not of the ’60s movement but traditional values. Born June 1, 1935, in Mercer County, WV, Dickens learned about music from her father, an occasional banjo player and Baptist minister who drove trucks for a mining company to make a living. She was early influenced by country traditionalists such as Uncle Dave Macon, the Monroe Brothers, and the Carter Family. When she was 19, her family’s dire poverty forced Dickens to move to Baltimore, where she worked in factories with her sister and two brothers.
The four displaced siblings often attended old-timey festivals and gatherings, watching others and performing themselves. At one of these festivals, Hazel Dickens met Mike Seeger (younger brother of folk legend Pete Seeger), and the two formed a band with her brothers. Over the ensuing decade, Dickens became active in the folk/bluegrass movement around the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area, playing bass and singing with several bands, including the Greenbriar Boys, who toured with Joan Baez in the ’60s.
Around this time she met Mike Seeger’s wife, Alice Gerrard, a classically trained singer also interested in old-timey music. At the nearby Library of Congress, the two began researching early feminist songs and then incorporated them into their own repertoire. The duo performed throughout the country — particularly the South — and recorded two albums for Folkways, Who’s That Knocking (And Other Bluegrass Country Music) (1965) and Won’t You Come & Sing for Me (1973).
The two separated in 1973 — two later albums were compiled from previous recordings — and Dickens began her solo career with a flourish. She recorded four songs for the soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning documentary about coalmining, Harlan County, USA. Three years later, she contributed to the soundtrack for With Babies and Banners and began a solo career five years later. Her three solo albums for Rounder, Hard Hitting Songs for the Hard Hit (1981), By the Sweat of My Brow (1983), and It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song (1987), include old-timey country alongside protest songs and songs in a more contemporary country style. Rounder’s A Few Old Memories distills the best of the three albums onto one disc.
Alice Gerard – Biographyby Craig Harris
The daughter of trained classical musicians, Alice Gerrard didn’t grow up with bluegrass or folk music. Her earliest musical memories are of singing along with family members and friends around the living room piano. Gerrard’s albums with West Virginia-born folksinger Hazel Dickens, however, rank among the most influential recordings in folk music history.
Gerrard’s first exposure to folk music came while she was attending Antioch College in Ohio. Inspired by the folk songs played by dorm-mates, Gerrard abandoned the piano and became absorbed with the more rural sounds that she heard on such albums as The Anthology of American Folk Music.
Moving to Washington, D.C., to complete her college co-op experience, Gerrard encountered a thriving bluegrass scene. Hanging out in her spare time at the Famous Restaurant in Washington, D.C., Gerrard met numerous bluegrass and old-timey musicians, including Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers, who introduced her to Dickens. With their mutual love of traditional American music, Gerrard and Dickens became close friends. Developing a unique harmony style that combined the alto-below-lead of the Carter Family and the tenor-above-lead of Bill Monroe, the two vocalists soon became frequent performers in the folk clubs and coffeehouses of the Capitol region. Their repertoire continued to expand as they studied sheet music at the Library of Congress and taped old-timey musicians at folk festivals.
Gerrard and Dickens’ debut album, Who’s That Knocking, released in 1965, was recorded for 75 dollars at the First Unitarian Church in Washington and featured accompaniment by David Grisman (mandolin), Lamar Grier (banjo), and Chubby Wise and Billy Baker (fiddles). Although their second album, Won’t You Come and Sing?, featuring the same musicians, was recorded the same year, it wasn’t released until 1973. Gerrard and Dickens’ first two albums were later combined and released as Pioneering Women of Bluegrass in 1996. The 26 tunes on the reissued album include six Carter Family songs, five Monroe tunes, three original songs by Dickens, and Gerrard’s hard-hitting satire of sexist attitudes towards women, “Custom Made Woman Blues.”
Gerrard and Dickens’ Get Acquainted Waltz was released in 1975 and featured accompaniment by Seeger, who was at the time Gerrard’s husband, and his New Lost City Ramblers bandmate Tracy Schwartz.
Gerrard subsequently recorded two albums with Seeger — Mike and Alice Seeger in Concert in 1970 and Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard in 1980 — and one solo collection, Pieces of My Heart in 1994. Since 1987, Gerrard has published The Old Time Herald, a quarterly magazine devoted to the preservation of old-timey music.
Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – Who’s that Knocking?
- Walkin in My Sleep
- Can’t you Hear me Calling
- Darling Nellie Across the Sea
- Difficult Run
- Coal Miner’s Blues
- Gabriel’s Call
- Just Another Broken Heart
- Take Me Back to Tulsa
- Who’s that Knocking?
- Cowboy Jim
- Long Black Veil
- Lee Highway Blues
- Lover’s Return
- Gonna Lay Down my Old Guitar
- I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling
open the door.
vinyl, cleaned | mp3 >256kbps vbr | w/ scans