Trailblazing female bluegrass singer-guitarist Hazel Dickens died April 22 in Washington, D.C., of complications from pneumonia. She was 75.
Daughter of a large West Virginia coal-mining family, Dickens gained wide recognition when her music was prominently employed in director Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1976 documentary about mining,”Harlan County U.S.A.”
Born in Montcalm, Mercer County, Dickens took up music as a young girl and modeled her guitar work after that of Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family. After moving to Baltimore, she was introduced to Pete Seeger’s folksinging half-brother Mike and began performing with his wife, Alice Gerrard.
The duo cut a pair of albums for Moses Asch’s Folkways label, and theirs was one of the few bluegrass groups of the era fronted by women. In the early ’70s, Dickens began recording solo for the Massachusetts folk label Rounder Records. She was noted for a repertoire including such highly personal originals as “Black Lung” and “Working Girl Blues.”
Her music was featured in John Sayles’ feature “Matewan” (1987) and Maggie Greenwald’s “Songcatcher” (2000). She was the subject of Mimi Pickering’s 2001 documentary “Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song.”