Born in Mercer County, West Virginia, life’s toil and blessings presented themselves to Hazel side-by-side. Her father carried timber for the local coal mines, an occupation that exposed to the Dickens family the suffering and exploitation of the company miners. On the brighter side of life was the music. Her brothers played guitar and mandolin, her father banjo, and she sang in the church choir and listened to the Grand Ole Opry. These multiple influences resulted in Ms. Dickens’ vast repertoire, consisting of hymns, mountain folk ballads, work songs, and commercial country, bluegrass, and blues tunes.
Ms. Dickens was 16 when two of her brothers moved to Baltimore. At a time when mountain women stayed close to the hearth, she followed them to the city. In Baltimore, she became part of a growing number of young people who were looking for an alternative to the grim and often dangerous life faced by coal mining families.
In the late `50s, Baltimore was just one of many cities where a local scene was emerging around the groundswell of enthusiasm for folk and bluegrass music among young people. As the burgeoning musical community grew, Ms. Dickens found herself swapping songs with many other singers and musicians, one of whom was classically trained singer Alice Gerrard. Ms. Dickens and Ms. Gerrard took a liking to each other, becoming both friends and singing partners. Soon they were haunting the folksong archives of the Library of Congress and attending the area folk festivals where they could study the songs of some of the country’s outstanding traditional singers and players. Performances and tours soon commenced, proving to the pair their unique blend of traditional, contemporary, and original music had the power to affect and move their audiences.
Bolstered by their experiences, Ms. Dickens and Ms. Gerrard recorded two albums for Folkways in the late 60s. Backed by some of the finest players in bluegrass -- including legendary fiddler Chubby Wise, David Grisman on mandolin, and banjoist Lamar Grier -- the records were electrifying, thanks in no small part to the dynamic original compositions that Ms. Dickens had contributed.
In 1973 Ms. Dickens and Ms. Gerrard recorded their first album, simply titled Hazel & Alice. This album, perhaps their purest, most soulful and direct, featured their galvanizing singing against spare, minimal accompaniment. A classic collection of old-time and bluegrass music, Hazel & Alice’s gorgeous country harmonies continue to touch and influence musicians, artists, and fans alike. But neither Ms. Dickens nor Ms. Gerrard were sure about their goals in music, and they parted company soon after their second album, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, was issued in 1976. Ms. Dickens continued to work at her singing career while holding down a day job until well into the late `70s, when she was finally able to devote herself to music full-time.
As is often noted, her voice has an immediacy, a directness, which belies its artfulness; it is a voice of strength, conviction and raw honesty. But in addition to her extraordinary singing, Ms. Dickens has distinguished herself as a unique and passionate songwriter. Covered by artists as renown as Laurie Lewis, Dolly Parton, Hot Rize, and Lynn Morris, her originals draw from hard experience, firm values, honesty, and steadfast integrity. Her more popular compositions include such powerful songs as “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” “My Better Years,” “Working Girl Blues,” “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” “Mama’s Hand,” “A Few Old Memories,” “Old Callused Hands,” and “West Virginia, My Home.”
Ms. Dickens’ songs about coalmine workers caught the attention of Barbara Kopple, who was producing what would become an Oscar-winning documentary: 1976’s Harlan County, USA. Four of her songs were heard in the film, and those along with three more are included on the compilation Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle, released to coincide with the films reissue as a Criterion Collection DVD. In 1986, Ms. Dickens appeared and sang in John Sayles' Matewan, a film about the massacre of striking coal miners in 1920. Work in films continues to occupy much of her time, as her authority – coupled with extreme compassion – makes her an ideal source for information, music, and accurate portrayals of the plight of Appalachia.
Numerous awards have been given to Ms. Dickens for her contributions to music as well as the humanitarian causes she supports. In 1993 she received an Award of Merit from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). In 1995 she was inducted into the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Greats. Her song “Mama’s Hand” was recorded by Lynn Morris and subsequently won Song of the Year at the 1996 IBMA Awards. D.C.’s WAMMIE Awards awarded Ms. Dickens with the 1998 Traditional Female Vocalist award, and Shepherd College of Shepherdstown, West Virgina, presented her with an honorary doctorate degree for the humanities in 1998.
In the fall of 2001, she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for her efforts to not only preserve her Appalachian musical heritage but to expand upon it and continue its relevance and vitality. Following that, in February of 2002, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Folk Alliance for her tireless advancement of folk and traditional music. More recently, Ms. Dickens was among the inaugural inductees into the newly formed West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Longtime admirer and friend Alison Krauss presented her with the honor as part of a televised awards program in November of 2007.
Ms. Dickens continues to record and to perform. In addition to her seven albums on Rounder (two with Alice Gerrard), the original albums she recorded with Ms. Gerrard for Folkways have been reissued on CD. She is also the subject of a 2001 documentary, It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, which is also the title of a forthcoming biography of Ms. Dickens by noted country music scholar Bill C. Malone. In addition, a studio album featuring several new original songs is now in the works, as is a tribute album composed of Ms. Dickens originals performed by a range of artists who have been influenced by her life and work.