Recently David Morris wrote an article for the online magazine Bluegrass Today suggesting rather strongly that Hazel Dickens should be in the IBMA Hall of Fame. Since Hazel, and her singing partner Alice Gerrard, are both featured in a chapter of Murphy's book, Pretty Good For A Girl, that topic is right down Murphy's alley. So, as soon as she remembered her user name and password (which involved getting a new user name and password!), she posted a comment. You can read the article and all the comments here.
I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t resist the terrible and totally inappropriate pun in the title. The great Hazel Dickens died April at the age of 85* and "You’ll Get No More Of Me" is one of her more famous songs. Of course, as she wrote it, it’s a song about a love affair gone wrong. But Hazel had a wicked and sly sense of humor and I hope she’ll not think too badly of me for using her wonderful and serious song in this cavalier manner.
I am sad at Hazel’s passing not only because she was one of the great songwriters and singers in bluegrass and folk music, but also because she was a friend. I can’t say that I knew her well although we did ride to IBMA several years together and she spent the night at our house before one of those trips. (The picture with the lawnmower was taken then, in the fall of 1996. She’s not really mowing the grass, she just grabbed the mower and was being silly as we were loading the car. She probably did it to avoid having to help load.) I also interviewed her for my book-in-progress, Pioneer Women in Bluegrass, and she has a large chapter there. And I even played banjo for a show with her and Alice Gerrard a few years ago (12!) in Durham, N.C., when Hazel and I went down to participate as visiting artists in Bill Malone’s Duke University class “Women and the Making of Southern Folk and Country Music.” [Note: Bill Malone is THE authority on early country music and the author of the famous book Country Music USA.] Casey and I also made a point of being on hand to witness Hazel getting her honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Shepherd College in 1998. I published her acceptance speech in my Women in Bluegrass newsletter.
Still, I don’t want to claim a closer relationship than we had. I always felt our backgrounds were too dissimilar for us to get really close. As Hazel pointed out when she accepted her honorary doctorate degree, “This degree obviously means more to someone like me that never had the opportunity to get a formal education than to someone who was born with everything.” [Emphasis hers.] She wasn’t talking about me, of course, but the fact that my life had been relatively easy and hers had been incredibly hard always stood between us, I thought. Also, I did not become a fan of her music (and her) until we moved to Virginia in 1986, so I could not claim her as an influence on my own music. Then there was the small factor that we were both highly opinionated women, on opposite sides of the political fence (although I didn’t dare venture there!), and we both liked—nay, needed!—to be the center of attention. (Hazel was just quieter about getting it!)
We did, however, share common ground when it came to the subject of women in bluegrass. When Hazel received her IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award in 1993, she walked on stage and said, “I was wondering if any women’s names were ever going to be mentioned.” Which echoed my own thoughts precisely. [In 8 years, she was only the fourth woman to receive the award which had also been given to 33 men.] At the Rounder women’s showcase at IBMA in 1999, Hazel joined Laurie Lewis, Rhonda, Lynn Morris, Missy, Claire Lynch, and Beth and April Stevens for the last number. She stepped up to the mike and said, “It don’t want to hear anymore crap about women who can’t pick or sing bluegrass! Hit it, girls!”
Also in 1999, Hazel was part of a Women in Bluegrass workshop at IBMA that also included Missy, Rhonda, Pam Gadd, Sara Watkins, Gloria Belle, and moi. As I wrote in Women in Bluegrass, “The highlight of the workshop was hearing Gloria Belle and Hazel sing 'Banjo Pickin’ Girl.' They had never sung together before but when Hazel reached up there and grabbed that tenor, I knew I was hearing the real thing. Missy said the hair on the back of her neck stood up.” At the workshop Hazel told us that when she played bass with a band in Baltimore, she was only occasionally allowed to sing a number. And that the reason she was in the band to begin with was that she owned the bass! (And if you don’t mind salty language, ask me some time what the guy said about Hazel when she took over his job as bass player.)
But even earlier than that, in 1995, when I emceed the “World’s Greatest All-Female Jam” at the IBMA FanFest (during supper break, mind you!), Hazel made a special point of rushing back from her own supper to join us—72 women—for the last song, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". I felt so honored by her presence.
Hazel was there again in 1997 when several groups of professional women showcased during FanFest, singing "You’ll Get No More Of Me". I forgot that I’d played guitar for that, with Lynn Morris on banjo, Chris Lewis on mandolin, and Casey on bass.
Hazel leaves behind a wonderful legacy in song. Check out her own recordings and the two Rounder albums she made with Alice Gerrard. The Johnson Mountain Boys also recorded a number of her songs, as did Lynn Morris. "Mama’s Hand", sung by Lynn, won IBMA Song of the Year in 1996. Hazel also made a brief appearance in the movie Matewan, and sang a spine-tingling song at a funeral. Mimi Pickering did a fabulous documentary about Hazel, It’s Hard To Tell the Singer From the Song. I highly recommend that. And Bill Malone co-authored, with Hazel, a slim book about her songs, Working Girl Blues. It includes a brief bio of Hazel, the words to many of her songs, and comments from Hazel about how she came to write them.
I treasure my memories of Hazel and the few times we spent together. As I wrote in an email to Alice Gerrard, “I'm glad I got to know her a little bit...what a complex and talented woman.” Alice replied, “Yes, a complicated and talented woman; sometimes aggravating (as I was to her, I'm sure) and always wonderful— a HUGE part of my life and a dear friend.”
I will remember Hazel especially when I hear one of her amazing, powerful songs. I’ll close with a verse from one of my favorites, "Won’t You Come and Sing For Me":
In my home beyond that dark river
Your dear faces no more I’ll see
Until we meet where there’s no more sad partings
Won’t you come and sing for me.
We will, Hazel. Rest in peace, my friend.
[*That is not a typo. In everything published about Hazel she shaved years off of her age. She really was 85.]