Real traditional: Hazel Dickens, part 3

Mable Hillary and Hazel Dickens, Southern Grassroots Music Tour, 1973/1974. Photo by Cory Foster. call no. PA-20304/1.

A quick post today featuring an oral history heavy article on Hazel Dickens that originally appeared in the Washington D. C. alternative/underground newspaper, The Unicorn Times, in 1977.  See complete article below and previous Hazel Dickens tributes here: part 1 and part 2.

Besides offering a comprehensive biography of her life up until the time it was published in 1977, the Unicorn Times article gives equal, or perhaps, even more space to Hazel’s own voice.  Much like the book Dickens would co-write with Bill Malone thirty years later, the article gives Hazel the opportunity to critique her own life story as it had been told by others: folklorists, record companies, and the media.  Among the subjects addressed are Dickens meeting and playing music with Mike Seeger in the 1950s, her feelings about her own Southern identity and mountain heritage, her status as a feminist role model, and of course her political activism.  Hazel also talks about performance styles, tradition and change in country music, and the frustration that many performers feel when their creative expression is forced into categories.

“There’s so many people that get put down for doing real traditional music. For those people who still have the guts to get out there and do it, it’s a political thing. They’re to be commended for trying to preserve the music. For those people who want to go on to something else, I see nothing wrong with that. It’s part of the freedom to do what you want to do.

For myself, I like to sing that music. Whether I’m singing on or off key, whether I’m even missing some of the chords, when I’m at my best is when I’m belting it out and giving it all I’ve got. It’s something of tme that I can’t put forth if I’m restrained or trying to get everything just right. Some people when they hear country, they think of country-western, but to me it’s traditional, raw…not too pretty a sound to some people because people with a trained ear would be very put off by that sound. The voice may be gravelly, it’s not polished or too stylized. It’s not a smooth style, it’s all feeling and emotion.

When I’m at my best is when I’m singing like that. If I get too involved with what other people are thinking, with trying to sing on pitch or trying to sing the way I know some people would like to hear me sing. I lose it.” ["Hazel Dickens: The Working Class Conscience of Harlan County, U. S. A.,Unicorn Times, August 1977, by Alice Gerrard, Len Stanley, and Richard Harrington]

Hazel Dickens, Unicorn Times, p. 5.  Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (#20004), Folder 40.

Remembering Hazel Dickens, part 2

Hazel Dickens, tour 1971. SFC Photographs.

Founded in 1966 by Anne Romaine and Bernice Johnson Reagon, the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project (SFCRP) worked to present traditional musicians from black and white cultures in performance together at a time when this was considered controversial. The SFCRP continued presenting musical performances throughout the South until the late 1980s and kept close ties with the activism of the civil rights era.  Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard participated in numerous tours, from 1968 to the 1980s, even assisting in the organizing, production, and promotion at times.

The Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (#20004) includes numerous promotional materials as well as correspondence, both business and personal, between Anne Romaine,  Hazel, and Alice.  The letters and contracts provide fascinating details about the cultural industries related to traditional music in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as information about lives of struggling folk musicians like Hazel and Alice as they carved out their early careers.  In a letter dated 19 February 1968, Anne wrote to Alice:

“Dear Alice,
I have narrowed the tour schedule down to two weeks instead of three.  It will be from the 7th of April through the 20th.  Can you and Hazel come for the second week which will be from the 14th through the 20th?  The other performers for that week will be the Blue Ridge Mt. Dancers, Mike Cooney, Mable Hillary, Rev. Brown.  I hope that change doesn’t mess up yalls plans too much.  The tour will concentrate almost entirely in North Carolina.  I could get you a weekend date here in Atlanta at the Crucible coffee house at Emory University which pays 70% of the gross for Fri. and Sat. They usually have about 70 people in there each night”  [letter from Anne Romaine to Alice Foster, Feb. 19, 1968.  From the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (#20004)]

Below is a promotional brochure for Hazel & Alice from the early 1970s.

 

for part 1, follow the link: “Hurricane” Hazel Dickens