Hazel Dickens, a bluegrass pioneer, social activist, and once one half of the duo Hazel & Alice, died Friday at a Washington, D.C., hospice of complications from pneumonia, reports the LA Times. She was 75. Raised in poverty in West Virginia, Hazel was the eighth of 11 children. Her father was a Primitive Baptist minister and musical instruments were not allowed in his church, teaching her love songs for their content.
“You learn to listen to the lyrics and to the melody,” she told the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette in 1996. “I never thought about it until I got away from home. I used to feel instruments got in the way of listening to the melody and the lyrics. I think it’s very beautiful to hear that many voices, untrained, singing from the heart and soul.”
Hazel moved to Baltimore as a teenager. In the 1950s, she met Mike Seeger, half brother of folk artist Pete Seeger. The pair started performing together and through Mike she met Alice Gerrard. Hazel and Alice became a fixture on bluegrass circuit in the 1960s and 70s and she continued as a solo artist when they split in the mid-70s.
Hazel was known for being supportive of the working class, penning songs about immigrants and wronged women. She was a voice for coal miners and the poor. Her music was featured in Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Oscar-winning documentary about Kentucky coal miners. She also appeared and sang in the film Matewan in 1987 about labor organizing in a mining town.
Hazel was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A tribute album is being prepared with artists like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and the Judds performing Hazel’s songs. Naomi Judd has said that a Hazel & Alice LP was a major influence behind the sound of The Judds. A new album from Hazel is close to being released. She was divorced, and a brother was her only immediate survivor.