Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bluegrass and Country Music Pioneer Hazel Dickens Passes

Bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens, who grew up in poverty in Mercer County and sang her hard-hitting songs about working people, coal mining and West Virginia all over the world, died in her sleep Thursday night at age 75.
"She was a treasure, a musical pioneer in bluegrass music, a gifted songwriter, an activist and a very wise woman who saw the truth in things and spoke it freely," Goldenseal magazine editor and musician John Lilly said Friday. "She sang and wrote about mining issues and mine safety issues and women's issues in general, and spoke up in her songs and conversation for people who needed a voice."

Dickens was "an authentic voice of America's working class," The Washington Post said Friday.

She received a 2001 National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has been honored by the Smithsonian Institution, the International Folk Alliance, the International Bluegrass Music Association and many other organizations. But she frequently said that no award meant more to her than her induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
"These rugged mountains and these coal-dusty mining towns and lonesome hollers have shaped my life," she said during her induction in 2007. "They shaped my music for all time."
Her songs were recorded by Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, Johnny Cash and scores of other musicians. Her song "West Virginia, Oh My Home" has become an unofficial West Virginia anthem, and "Mama's Hand" was an International Bluegrass Music Association song of the year. Her deep understanding of working women showed in songs like "Working Girl Blues" and "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There." Dickens' songs like "Black Lung," "They'll Never Keep Us Down" and "The Farmington Mine Disaster" chronicled West Virginia's coal mining history and were featured in the films "Matewan" and "Harlan County USA."
"Hazel was a real inspiration to coal miners everywhere," United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said Friday. "She was a strong, clear voice when we needed one and was never at a loss for words when it came to describing the hard lives miners and their families endured.  She was an icon, not just for West Virginians, but for anyone who had a concern for labor and women's issues," said Michael Lipton, founder of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. "She entered bluegrass music when it was a man's world, and she didn't push open doors. She kicked them open and allowed many other women to follow."

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