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by Justin Farrar

April 27, 2011

Rebel Girl: In Memory of Hazel Dickens (1935-2011)

by Justin Farrar  |  April 27, 2011

All of our life we've been kicked around, we've been put in jail, we've been shot at, we've had dynamite thrown at us. Then, you don't want us to have nothing. - Miner, Harlan County USA

Oh, the green rolling hills of West Virginia are the nearest thing to heaven that I know. Though the times are sad and drear. And I cannot linger here. They'll keep me and never let me go. - Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia"

Right now, as you're reading these words, an entire region, culture and people are dying off because their lands contain rocks and gases that help fuel, "from sea to shining sea," our country's power grid. This is a grim fact. But it's something the late Hazel Dickens --who died in her sleep on Friday, April 22 -- would want us to reflect-on as we mourn her passing. West Virginian to the core and damn proud of it, Dickens, 75, was a courageous and outspoken musician, pro-union activist and feminist who fought for the rights of her fellow Appalachians, from the mountains' coal miners to its disempowered women. Dickens, the eighth of 11 children, was born into poverty in the 1930s. She grew-up in the town of Montcalm, about 15 miles north of the West Virginia/Virginia border. Her father cut timber for the mines and preached The Bible. Coal was all around her. In her teens she relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, where she fell in with the then booming folk scene, namely Mike Seeger, of The New Lost City Ramblers, and his wife, singer Alice Gerrard. Beginning in the 1960s, she released a string of albums, spotlighting her commanding mountain voice and unmistakable fusion of bluegrass, folk revivalism, old time and even touches of honky tonk. All her records are quite powerful, but I would suggest starting with the trifecta of Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, Hazel & Alice and Strange Creek Singers, a collaborative effort also featuring Mike Seeger.

Celluloid captured Dickens' artistry when she appeared in the rousing documentary Harlan County USA, as well as the films Matewan and Songcatcher. All are vital viewings for those into rural American history.

Rest in peace, Ms. Dickens. Appalachia will miss you.

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