Hazel Dickens with Dolly Parton and Warren Hellman
Hazel Dickens, a bluegrass singer who played every Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival since the free event began in 2001, died today at age 75.
Described by the Washington Post as "a living legend of American music," Dickens used her 50-year career to advocate for the rights of women and laborers. The eighth of 11 children born to a poor coalmining family in West Virginia, Dickens began in her life as a touring musician in the early '60s, after meeting Mike Seeger (younger brother of the famous folksinger Pete Seeger) at a music festival in Baltimore.
Hazel and Warren in 2008
She subsequently toured with Joan Baez, recorded albums for the seminal Folkways label, and became an advocate for old-time American music like bluegrass and traditional country. Her music carried strong themes of feminism -- at one point she researched old feminist folk songs at the Library of Congress and worked them into her repertoire. She also supplied her powerful, high-pitched voice and guitar skills at workers' rallies and labor union meetings around the South.
Dickens was a favorite of San Francisco financier and investor Warren Hellman, who booked her at every Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. He told SF Weekly in 2006 that, every year, Dickens gives him "a hard time for an hour about being the rich man who lives on the hill."
Dickens died in Washington, D.C., this morning. You can hear more of her music at the
Smithsonian Folkways site, or in the videos below.