Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens by Bill C. Malone

At this year’s American Folklore Society conference (something I intend to write more about very soon)my wonderful friends Mike and Rachel Reynolds-Luster surprised me with a belated birthday gift: a paperback copy of Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens (Music in American Life Series, University of Illinois Press, 2008). It’s so good I have to tell you about it.

I have two favorite singer/songwriters of all time: Nina Simone and Hazel Dickens. Musically, most of Hazel’s songs are straightforward and simple, sung with a heavy and piercing appalachian dialect. However the subjects she tackles—working conditions of coal minors, the injustice of war, the conditions of the poor, and lonely, elderly men and women sitting alone in a nursing home—-are complex and often disconcerting for the listener . Hazel’s songs bring a human face to hardship, and they see to it that we look directly at injustices and the painful human stories society often pressures us to ignore.

But her songs are not wholly depressing. Often they are calls to action. Discussing her song “Black Lung,” a song she performs in the movie Harlan County USA and was inspired by her brother who died from working in the mines, author Bill Malone writes, “There is no mistaking the sound we hear. It is not a pathetic wail, nor a dejected cry of despair. It’s an angry call for justice” (1).

This one hundred and two page book written by Bill C. Malone, the author of numerous books on country music, and Hazel herself, provides a brief biography of her life from childhood spent in the West Virginia cole mining region, to her days singing with Alice Gerrard as one of the first female bluegrass duets, and on through her solo song writing years.

Following the biographical section of the book are two sections of photos including images of her singing on the picket lines with miners, performing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and a handful of family photos. Even better than this however is the section entitled “Song and Memories.” Here Hazel profiles forty of her songs, providing background information about the stories and situations that led up to them.

If you love Hazel’s music you’ll know what a gem this information is.   I remember the first time I heard her song “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands.” I begin to rethink traditional music’s potential. The song sounded much like the many country melodies I loved, and the vocal style and harmony reminded me of the gospel music I’d grown up with. But the lyrics challenged the status quo in a way I had never heard before in traditional southern music.  The familiarity of the music and vocal styling combined with tough questions about our human tendency to interact with one another using guns and bombs, struck a chord in me that is still rippling through my conscience nearly a decade later. At that point in my life I had always suspected there was rebellion and resistance in traditional southern mountain music, or at least there should be. Listening to Hazel Dickens’s music was like taking a magnifying glass, or maybe a shovel, to the small seeds of resistance buried there. And she was doing this as a woman, not something too common in those days.

She was not afraid to speak her mind, challenge society’s inconsistencies and injustices, and she did all this channeling the music she’d grown up with. To me, this is what art should be about. The chorus to the song goes like this:

Will Jesus wash the bloodstains from your hands?/ Will he welcome you to that peaceful land?/ Will he forgive the killings, the wars you have planned? Will Jesus wash the bloodstains from your hands?”

Written during the Nixon years, she explains the history of the song:

“I had this scary thought, the fear that we might get into a nuclear war. I was also thinking about my nephew who was in the Korean War, who was in two major battles by the time he was eighteen or nineteen. He was so messed up when he returned home he couldn’t cope. So he took a gun and killed himself. I thought, what a waste of human life. Wars have far reaching tentacles. We all know who really pulled that trigger. It seems as a civilized society we should practice being a little more civilized. Try a bit more diplomacy before we bomb each other into oblivion” (66).

Other songs profiled in the book include “America’s Poor” about the exploitation of workers whose low wages and hard labor allow the heads of corporations to become wealthy; “They’ll Never Keep us Down,” a song about the power of organizing, and ” Mama’s Hand,” heartbreaking tune about her mother’s love and the pain of leaving home and family to find work.

Of course, there is also information about the book’s title song “Working Girl Blues:” “I had to work, work, work,even on my day off. I just got real frustrated this particular day, and wanted to be out of there. I wanted to be where the music was. I was taking inventory, so I just turned the sheet over and started writing “Working Girl Blues.” The women who worked with me really liked it. If they came to one of my shows, they would request it. It’s gotten me a lot of milage” (40).

The book concludes with a full discography. If you are a Hazel Dickens fan, this book will provide backstory and insight into some of her most biting songs. If you are not familiar with Hazel, this work is a great place to start. Not everyone likes her voice. It’s not smooth. I love it for its passion, roughness, and because it reminds me of the way my paternal grandmother spoke. It gets to me somewhere down deep in my gut. As do her lyrics.

Below I have included links to profiles, articles, and information about Hazel Dickens. If you know of some links I have not listed here please let me know and I’ll include them.

2001 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow

Harlan County, USA (can be watched for free on Hulu by clicking on the link)

It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, film by Mimi Pickering

Matewan

A Profile of Hazel Dickens by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Part 1

Part 2

I could go on and on and one about Hazel, but I’d love to hear what you love about her. What’s your favorite Hazel song? Favorite album?

Comments

  1. […] her inspirations, influence, and the stories behind some of her best songs. You can read that post by clicking here. At the bottom of that post are also links to a documentary about her life and online videos of her […]

  2. […] She was a songwriter and singer, played guitar and upright bass, and is best known for her biting songs about workers’ rights, the injustice of big coal, and the fight for womens’ equality. – Set against the backdrop of bluegrass musicality, her songs deal with concepts of home, loss, poverty, and family. You can read one of our previous articles about Hazel here.  […]