- Hazel and John Lilly doing the two-step in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago.
Spring winds are tousling the treetops outside my window, and a cold, gray mist is hanging like a shroud on the mountains. We’re in mourning today for Hazel Dickens, whose stark, plaintive voice underscored the truth of her songs.
I got the news of her passing this morning when I checked into Facebook, something I rarely do these days. Singer/songwriter John Lilly’s status report broke the news to me, but several other Facebook friends have commented on her death.
I first heard the music of Hazel Dickens when I was in my twenties, struggling to come to terms with who I was and what I wanted to be. I loved music and singing, but never would have dared to sing in public—until I heard Hazel. Hazel, who had that same piercing singing style as my grandmother, born in 1895, inSummers County,West Virginia. Hazel was born in 1935 in neighboringMercerCounty. My grandmother was born into a Primitive Baptist family. Hazel’s father was a Primitive Baptist preacher. Forty-five years separated them generationally, but they were born and bred in the same stoic mountain culture where singing was something you did to entertain yourself, whether you had a pretty voice or not.
I cringed when I read the Washington Post’sobituary that states, “Ms. Dickens grew up in dire poverty inWest Virginia’s coal country and developed a raw, keening style of singing that was filled with the pain of her hardscrabble youth.”
If you actually listen to Hazel’s songs, you’ll find that they are filled with longing for her West Virginia youth:
In the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet I slip away
like a bird in flight
Back to those hills, the place that I call home.
It’s been years now since I left there
And this city life’s about got the best of me.
I can’t remember why I left so free what I wanted to do,
what I wanted to see,
But I can sure remember where I come from.
West Virginia, oh, my home
West Virginia, where I belong….
Well I paid the price for the leavin’
And this life I have is not one I thought I’d find.
Just let me live, love, let my cry,
but when I go just let me die
Among the friends who’ll remember when I’m gone.
Was it dire poverty she grew up in? Well, the whole country was still in the throes of the Great Depression when she was born, and almost everybody—even Washington, D.C. newspaper reporters–was financially insecure. (A lot like these days.) Hazel spoke of a childhood shared with 10 siblings, and a mother who lived in the kitchen, preparing fresh bread for three home-cooked meals a day. Can people who put three meals on the table each day for 13 people without any government assistance be described as poor? As my mom used to say, “We’re not poor. We just don’t have any money.” Then she would add, “Right now.”
Hazel’s daddy was not a miner, but he cut timbers for the mines, and her brothers became miners as those were the most plentiful jobs in most of resource-rich West Virginia until the 1950s, when machines began replacing men.
The Dickens family was resourceful, and young Hazel Jane somehow intuited that it was better to pine for the mountains of southern West Virginia than to be a working-class woman there, so she flew away. It was in Baltimore that she learned what hardscrabble really was. She worked to support herself, learned how to communicate with city people, and learned that her experience, her point of view, was valuable. We’re fortunate that she was a poet. Hazel taught a generation of women, including me, to sing the truth. She looked back at Appalachia and could see very clearly that her people had been and were being used and abused by an industry that chewed people up and spat them out.
She taught at least one person how to deal with death, and she did it through her song, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?”
The song first caught the ear of Vic Lukas, charter citizen of the Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia, when he heard it performed by Tim O’Brien’s band, Hot Rize. He later had the privilege of listening to Hazel herself sing it in a late-night jam at Clifftop, accompanied by Alice Gerrard.
“I was very moved by the song,” Vic says. “I quietly added my voice to the chorus in the background. It meant so much to me. It set me on the road to thinking how much I wanted folks to sing for me when I am gone, that I wanted to go with dignity. I’d like people to sing, and I’d like to have my ashes scattered at some place like the Mt. Airy festival grounds, or some other place that is beautiful. I realized then that I had to make all the rest of the plans so folks would know what I want. I’ve now done all that, and discussed it with my family and friends. I don’t want anyone to feel bad, so I’ve taken care of everything in advance. I’m ready, and all because of that song.”
I feel the shadows now upon me
And the angels beckon to me
Before I go, dear sisters and brothers
Won’t you come and sing for me?
Sing those hymns we sang together
In the plain little church with the benches all worn
How dear to my heart, how precious the moments
We stood shaking hands and singing a song.
My burden is heavy, my way has grown weary
I have traveled a road that is long
And it would warm this old heart, my dear brother
If you come and sing me one song.
In my home beyond the dark river
Your sweet faces no more I will see
Until we meet where there’s no more sad parting
Won’t you come and sing for me?
Next Tuesday, somewhere in Mercer County, West Virginia, Hazel’s family and friends will no doubt do just that.
I might be tempted to say that we’re poorer today because of Hazel’s passing, but a trip to YouTube will show that her spirit enriches the repertoire of musicians all over the world.