Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? The Music of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard

In preparation for the upcoming event “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? The Music of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard” here are some thoughts on a recording of a Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard  performance in 1973 by guest writer Tatiana Hargreaves. 

Tatiana Hargreaves is a first year graduate student at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science Master of Science in Library Science program. She is a lecturer of bluegrass fiddle in the music department at UNC and performs internationally with banjo player Allison de Groot. She received her BA in ethnomusicology and music performance from Hampshire College in 2017. 

Event Details:

Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? The Music of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard

Thursday, October 14th at 7pm Eastern time. 

This virtual event will feature performances by International Bluegrass Music Association vocalist of the year award winner Dudley Connell, fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves and clawhammer banjo player Allison de Groot. Following their performances, the musicians will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Laurie Lewis and Gerrard with record producer Peter Siegel. This event is the first in the Southern Folklife Collection’s two-part Folk Legacy Series celebrating great legacies in American vernacular music: bluegrass pioneers Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard and legendary blues musician John Lee Hooker. The virtual events are free and open to the public. The series is sponsored through generous support from the Martin Guitar Charitable Foundation. The second event, Boom Boom! The Music of John Lee Hooker, will take place November 4, 2021.

Sign up for the event here: http://go.unc.edu/HazelandAlice

AG 453: Alice and Hazel, recorded on 24 September 1973, in concert at Washington Square Church in N.Y.C. 

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, often described as “pioneering women of bluegrass,” are two of the most iconic and visible women in the bluegrass music community. Their first album released in 1965 is considered the first women duet-led bluegrass recording and as a duo they recorded three more albums and toured extensively throughout the 1960s and 1970s. They performed at festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival, Smithsonian Folk Festival and Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival and regularly participated in the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project where they toured with artists such as Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, Ola Belle Reed, Johnny Shines, and many others. In 2017 they were the first women to be inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame. But even with musicians as visible as Hazel and Alice, there are so many details that go unnoticed. 

Hazel Dickens, second from right, at the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, Summer 1974. Photo by Alice Gerrard. Alice Gerrard Collection (#20006)

The standard Hazel and Alice narrative focuses on their powerful harmony singing and repertoire choice. What isn’t recognized as much is their instrumental performances, attention to detail in song arrangements and overall artistry. On their professional recordings, you hear a selected and curated outcome of both traditional and original material, mostly in the context of a full band. Their last album has some more stripped down duo arrangements, but listening to this live performance of Hazel and Alice from 1973 shows another side of the duo. This concert recording of just the two of them demonstrates the versatility of their musicianship. Throughout the performance, you can hear Gerrard playing lead guitar, lead banjo, and lead autoharp in addition to both Alice and Hazel being featured as solo vocalists. 

Hearing their stage banter and tuning on stage also gives a more intimate perspective on the duo. Sometimes you can hear Dickens say “too fast” at the beginning of a song as they adjust their speed during the performance. Other times you can hear the two of them moving around, deciding where to stand and how close to the mic to get. Other times, you can even hear them reminding each other how a tune starts or what the next verse of a song is. Dickens does most of the talking as she shares stories about her family, touring anecdotes and the backgrounds of the songs. Meanwhile, Gerrard tunes the various instruments that she plays and adds in commentary, only introducing a few of the songs such as her banjo feature “Fortune.”

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, 1975. From the Mike Seeger collection (#20009)

While Gerrard tunes the banjo in between the songs “Train on the Island” and “Steals of the White Man,” Dickens talks about changing their song choices when they started doing the Southern Folk Festival (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20004/). She adds, “I don’t want to say ‘repertoire’, that’s too uptown” and laughs. The tours couldn’t afford to pay for the full band, so they rearranged their material as a duo and added new repertoire (I know, too uptown). You can hear some of the practicing recordings of Hazel and Alice working on these arrangements on the 2018 release ‘Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard – Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969’s. 

Some of the stage banter is humorous, such as Dickens’ story about her father who used to play banjo. She talks about how he would play square dances, barn raisings, apple butter makings, and many other events but stopped once he “got religion.” When Dickens and her brother encouraged their father to play the banjo again by getting him a new instrument, she says, “he got up in the middle of the night one night and destroyed it.” 

Dickens and Gerrard also include anecdotes about their song choices. For example, before singing “Steals of a White Man,” Dickens talks about the influence of the Southern Folk Festival tours (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20004/) on her conception of class. She jokes, “I never even knew that I belonged to the working class [before these tours]. I didn’t even know I had a class.” Although she’d been singing working class songs her whole life, she just didn’t know that they were called that. Later, when Dickens announces “Mining Camp Blues,” she talks about Trixie Smith being the only Black woman singer she knew of who wrote a song about mining. On the second tape, Gerrard introduces her song “Hey, Mr. Nixon” by saying “I wrote it after I saw the Indo-China peace campaign with Jane Fonda.” She also adds that she has only  performed it once before and needs a lyric sheet, which you then hear her try to pin up on the mic stand. 

One of my favorite moments from the performance is when Gerrard plays the tune “Fortune” on banjo. She announces the tune with, “This is my favorite fiddle tune”, to which Dickens replies, “that doesn’t look much like a fiddle to me, Alice.” Alice admits, “I wish I could play it on the fiddle, but I can’t play it on the fiddle so I decided to try and learn it on the banjo.” Gerrard is in fact a fiddle player, and you can hear some of her playing throughout her collection. (Check out this footage of Alice playing fiddle with Bertie Dickens playing banjo https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/sfc/id/56594/rec/1

Alice Gerrard with banjo. 16th Southern Grassroots Music Tour, 1980-81. Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (#20004)

These spontaneous moments of Alice and Hazel in concert reveal a nuanced version of themselves that gets lost in the “pioneering women of bluegrass” narrative. Having never seen Hazel and Alice perform as a duo, I found that the talking, tuning and spaces in between each song offered a more complete perspective of the duo than I had heard before. I look forward to joining Alice Gerrard, Laurie Lewis, Dudley Connell,  Allison de Groot and Peter Siegel in conversation about the music of Hazel and Alice on October 14th at 7pm. You can sign up for the event here: https://lnkd.in/dzmhHcZf

 

 

 

 

ICYMI – When I’m Gone: Remembering Elizabeth Cotten

I was reflecting on this crazy year recently, and feeling grateful for our Elizabeth Cotten event earlier in November, a heartwarming hour amid all the noise of the previous few months that was fun to share and experience with all who tuned in.

In case you missed it, the full event is available to stream below from the UNC Libraries YouTube channel.

Cotten’s great-grandson John Evans, Jr. and his family, along with Yasmin Williams, bookended the event with performances that recalled the origins of Cotten’s music, along with how it continues to inspire contemporary musicians.

Alice Gerrard’s segment offered an intimate recollection of life on the road with Cotten on tours organized by the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project.  The SFC is proud to hold both the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20004/), as well as the collection of Anne Romaine (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20304/), one of the co-founders of the SFCRP with Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Reverend Pearly Brown, Anne Romaine in background (P-20004/2805). In the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection #20004, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There was also a glimpse and mention of Dick Waterman in Gerrard’s slideshow, and the SFC holds the Dick Waterman Photography Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20533/), a rich resource of photographs documenting the blues, country, and rock music scenes from the 1960s to the early 2000s.

Elizabeth Cotten (PF-20009/16). In the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In addition to the Cotten-related collections mentioned in the previous post (and check out one of the earliest known photos of a young Elizabeth Cotten above from the Mike Seeger Collection) (When I’m Gone: Remembering Folk Icon Elizabeth Cotten), we invite you to explore those associated collections held by the SFC that were referenced in the event.

The Elizabeth Cotten appearance on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show that opened the event can be found here a little more smoothly than the video capture over Zoom.  The SFC has the original 2″ quad video of that show in the Pete Kuykendall Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20546/).

When I’m Gone: Remembering Folk Icon Elizabeth Cotten

 

The Southern Folklife Collection and the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are happy to invite you to an evening of stories and music celebrating the life of legendary North Carolina musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten.  Please join us Thursday, November 12 at 7pm.  Register for this free, live event here: go.unc.edu/ElizabethCotten

Elizabeth Cotten and children (PF-20009/17). Photo by Mike Seeger. Ca. 1957 in the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This hour-long virtual program will feature guitarist Yasmin Williams, musician and scholar Alice Gerrard, and Cotten’s great-grandson John W. Evans Jr., who is pictured above as a young boy listening to Cotten.

The SFC is proud to hold a number of collections related to the work of Cotten, including Alice Gerrard’s own collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20006/).

Elizabeth Cotten, Live! | FC-17741 in the Southern Folklife Collection

Many live concert recordings are held in the McCabe’s Guitar Shop Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20511/), which also includes a video interview, from around 1984, of Cotten and some of her family.  The Grammy-award winning Elizabeth Cotten, Live! recording (pictured above), a sampler of live performances from Cotten in her 80s, includes selections from sets recorded at McCabe’s and preserved in the collection.

The Stefan Grossman Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20578/), picked up in December 2019, also offers some classic Cotten material through his Vestapol label, a deep source of a variety of video recordings of jazz, blues, country, and folk artists.

Perhaps the richest source of Cotten material is held in the Mike Seeger Collection (https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/20009/).  It was while in employment as a housekeeper for the Seeger family that Cotten picked up a guitar again after a period of musical inactivity, and Mike Seeger’s reel-to-reel recordings of her playing propelled her to becoming a popular figure on the folk circuit, and a touring and performing career that lasted into her 90s.

Elizabeth Cotten and Mike Seeger (PF-20009/22). In the Mike Seeger Collection #20009, Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Many thanks to a generous grant from the Martin Guitar Charitable Foundation for making this event possible.

And if you ever find yourself down our way in Elizabeth Cotten’s hometown, check out this recently installed mural by North Carolina artist Scott Nurkin, near the Chapel Hill/Carrboro border, as part of the Musician Murals Project.

1975 American Traditional Old-time Music Festival

cover of festival brochure, with illustration of a scarecrow holding a banjosecond page of festival brochure, describing the scope and intent of the festivalThe American Traditional Old-time Music Festival was a touring festival of old-time musicians directed by Mike Seeger in 1975-76. This brochure, Folder 2877 in the D.K. Wilgus Papers (20003), is from the April 17, 1975 stop at UCLA. Song and interview recordings from throughout the tour can be found in the Mike Seeger Collection (20009), most of which are digitized: FS-20009/9655-9662,9688-9696. Here is one to get you started: Dennis McGee and Sady Courville, April 20, 1975 (FS-20009/9693).
third and fourth pages of festival brochure, providing brief biographies for the artists to appearthe last two pages of the festival brochure, detailing other bicentennial events at UCLA; acknowledgments