Hazel Dickens: “Mama’s Hand”

Portrait of Hazel Dickens

See photo credit below.

In her song “Mama’s Hand,” Hazel Dickens tells the story of the day she left her family’s home in West Virginia and had to let go of her mama’s hand. She was headed to Baltimore to join her siblings and look for work.

Though she was a powerhouse songwriter, Hazel worked on “Mama’s Hand” for years, wanting to honor her mother as perfectly as she could. If you read the lyrics or – better yet – listen to Hazel sing the song, you’ll see how she can spin a heart-rending yarn in just a few short verses. If you want the CD on which Hazel sings “Mama’s Hand,” you’ll want to buy A Few Old Memories. (And what a great CD to add to your collection! It also includes “Pretty Bird,” “Only the Lonely,” “Coal Tattoo,” and so many other great Hazel classics.)

Born in 1935, in Mercer County, West Virginia, the eighth of eleven children, Hazel Dickens was a bluegrass pioneer. Known for her memorable songwriting and her “hard” singing style blending a cappella Primitive Baptist and bluegrass vocal styles, Hazel has been a role model for many female musicians since the 1960s.

She died in 2011 at the age of 75, having accumulated numerous honors and created a wide circle of friends. I am proud to have been one of those friends.

Hazel would frequently tell stories about her childhood in West Virginia’s coal country, including the tale of how her mother saved her life by feeding her crackers soaked in milk and the special mother/daughter bond that was forged through this experience. Hazel’s father shared with her old-time banjo playing and traditional Primitive Baptist singing, and Hazel also listened to the Grand Ole Opry and local radio programs.

In 1954, Hazel moved to Baltimore, where she quickly became a part of the area’s burgeoning music scene, singing with musicians Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard, among others. Hazel and Alice began singing together publicly in the early 1960s and continued to perform as a duo for more than a decade. In 1973, Rounder Records released the landmark album Hazel & Alice, which represented the breakthrough of women into the previously male-dominated bluegrass music world and which inspired a number of women to make their own contributions to bluegrass, folk, and country music. In 1996, Smithsonian Folkways reissued the duo’s early work as Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard: Pioneering Women of Bluegrass.

Hazel gained wide respect for her work as a songwriter, composing such songs as “West Virginia, My Home,” “Working Girl Blues,” “The Mannington Mine Disaster,” and “A Few Old Memories.” (There are so many great Hazel songs that it is hard to list just a few!)

Hazel’s dedication to the cause of the working poor— particularly coal miners and members of labor unions, welfare rights organizations, and women’s groups—has been felt in the songs she has written and in her numerous benefit concerts. Especially notable are the songs she wrote and performed in the documentary film Harlan County, USA (1976), as well as her performance in the movie Matewan (1987).

The subject of an Appalshop documentary, Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2000), Hazel was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities in 1998 by Shepherd College (Shepherdstown, West Virginia). In 1994, she received the Award of Merit from the International Bluegrass Music Association; the next year, she was inducted into the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America’s Preservation Hall of Greats; and in 2001, she was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship.

If you want to learn more about the life and music of Hazel Dickens, here are a few resources to get you started:

If you still haven’t had enough Hazel (and who can ever have enough Hazel?!), don’t forget to go to You Tube and search for Hazel Dickens. You’ll find all kinds of footage and songs there!

I feel so fortunate to have known Hazel. I sat with her on the stage when she received her honorary doctorate from Shepherd College (where I was a Professor of English). I got to share in the excitement when she, Ginny Hawker, and Carol Elizabeth-Jones released their trio album, Heart of a Singer. And I was there in the audience at numerous concerts, always inspired by her words, her music, and her fighting spirit.

Check out my Pinterest boards for images and resources related to Hazel Dickens. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Songs” board for Hazel Dickens treats.

And don’t forget to leave a comment on this post! If you subscribe to the weekly StoryWeb email and leave a comment here, you’ll be entered into a monthly drawing to win a StoryWeb T-shirt.

Listen: Listen to Hazel sing “Mama’s Hand.” The clip runs 4:31.

Photo used with permission from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hazel_Dickens.jpg.