PRINCETON — The fiddles cried a long, lonesome tune through the hills of West Virginia Tuesday, as Mercer County's own world-class folk singer/songwriter Hazel Dickens was brought home to be laid to rest in Princeton.
Dickens, who was born in Montcalm in 1935, died April 22, at a Hospice near her longtime Georgetown, Md. home, of complications from pneumonia. Revered throughout the bluegrass, traditional acoustic and folk music worlds for her unmistakably raw mountain voice and her powerfully candid songs standing up for the rights of women, laborers and the impoverished, she had traveled the country and the world playing the music she learned to play as a child growing up deep in a Mercer County hollow. Her death was reported by national media outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and NPR's 'All Things Considered,' reflecting the great respect she had gained throughout her award-winning career in the music.
“We all know much about Hazel's musical achievements,” said Ken Irwin, co-founder of the label on which Dickens recorded, Rounder Records, who spoke at the funeral service held at Seaver Funeral Home. “There were many awards, and there will be lots more later on. Her loss leaves gaping holes in the areas of music that she touched, and holes in our hearts and souls that will not be easily mended. Perhaps they will never be entirely mended, and they needn't be, because with her warmth and sense of humor and love, Hazel touched us and reminded us of the best of ourselves as human beings.”
Irwin, a close friend of Dickens' who traveled many roads with her throughout her musical career went on to share fond memories of the unassuming singer's flair for “commanding attention” with her big voice and her unapologetically outspoken songs that purposefully gave a voice to the downtrodden.
“She had the ability to dig deeply and communicate what she was thinking and feeling in a way that few songwriters can do,” he said. “Hers was a voice of despair, but also of hope, springing out for change. Her songs were direct and without artifice; she never wasted a word, only saying, so well, what needed to be said. She had an incredible sensibility about what was going on around her, and she could put that into songs that would resonate with people who felt the same thing, just not as consciously as she did. She was a catalyst for change in the individual. Some songwriters can touch the world one person at a time, and that's what Hazel did.”
Throughout her illustrious career, Dickens was awarded with several International Bluegrass Music Association awards, including the organization's prestigious merit award, of which she was the first female recipient. She was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor, and in 2001, she received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The honor she was most proud of, however, was a 2007 induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, a fact family and friends said was telling of her passionate allegiance to the home she left as a teenager, when she followed several of her siblings to Baltimore to find work in the factories.
“When we lost our mother, we asked Aunt Hazel to step in for us, and she did,” said a niece of Dickens', who choked back tears as she spoke. “She started coming to West Virginia a lot and visiting us; she spent Christmases here, and we had summer reunions. It was the most wonderful thing to have Hazel for an aunt. She loved her family very much, and even though she sang with millionaires and went all over the United States and as far as China, she never forgot her family or West Virginia or the common people. She tried to help the common people, and she wrote folk songs telling the stories of West Virginia. She never forgot her home. We'll miss her very much.”
Another niece remembered well the excitement that would spread through the family when Hazel and other aunts and uncles were coming home for a reunion. One thing, she said, was for sure during those get-togethers: there would always be music.
“That was such a special thing for a young girl like me, raised so far back in the country, to have Aunt Hazel and my father's brothers gather to play,” she said. “To know that people in our family had these extraordinary gifts was so fascinating, and to know that she stayed with us, and loved us, and never strayed from her family through thick and thin. She was there with us through each death, and each life, the birth of each child. Hazel was a gatherer; she kept the family together. And, she loved the state of West Virginia and the people. She gave so much of herself to our family and to this state.”
One invaluable gift Dickens gave to her home state was the poignant song 'West Virginia, My Home,' in which she lamented that her city life was not what she thought she'd find, and that “in the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet, I slip away like a bird in flight back to those hills, the place that I call home.” The most emotionally moving moments of the memorial service Tuesday, in fact, came when another legendary West Virginia songster, Ginny Hawker, who collaborated with Dickens on the record 'Heart of a Singer,' led several renowned musicians on-hand for the funeral in a stirring rendition of the song. When she sang 'just let me live, love, let me cry; when I go, just let me die, among the folks who'll miss me when I'm gone,' Hawker shed a visible tear, along with nearly everyone in the room.
“For so many years, Hazel was like a sister to me,” said Alice Gerrard, who, along with Dickens, formed the highly successful duo Hazel & Alice, releasing two records in the 1960s and 70s. “Sometimes we got along and sometimes we fought; she was always trying to make me look presentable, because I was sort of a hippie girl. But, she was my supporter when my husband died and I had four kids; she was like an aunt to my kids. I remember so many nights we danced and played music all night. She was such an influence on my life. Like many singers, she was the one I listened to when I was learning how to sing. I'll never forget her.”
Gerrard later sang Dickens' song 'Won't You Come and Sing With Me?' with the help of other musical contemporaries of Dickens', including Dudley Connell and David McLaughlin, of the Johnson Mountain Boys, Tracy Schwarz, of the New Lost City Ramblers, Sally Love and Marshall Wilborn. Also present at the service was Lynn Morris, who charted a major bluegrass hit with Dickens' 1996 IBMA song of the year, 'Mama's Hand.'
“Hazel was respected by her colleagues, and loved by her family,” said Rev. Jimmy Dickens, the singer's nephew. “An inheritance leaves something for someone, but a legacy always leaves something in others. Hazel made a deposit. She left something in all of our lives. She left precious memories; wonderful times that we'll always remember. She was very special to all of us.”
Throughout her career, Dickens appeared in the films 'Matewan,' 'Songcatcher,' and 'It's Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song,' a documentary about her life in which Naomi Judd names Hazel & Alice as the main influence on the career of The Judds. Dickens' songs were recorded by the likes of Dolly Parton and Kathy Mattea, among many others. Before singing her heartbreaking 'Just a Few Old Memories' Tuesday, traditional acoustic musician John Lilly told attendees that Hazel was defined by a set of lovable paradoxes, seeming contradictions that fittingly characterized the little Montcalm girl with a big voice who found her way to international acclaim.
“Hazel was an old-fashioned mountain girl, but she had some progressive ideas,” he said. “She was humble and quiet, but when she wanted to, she could be quite loud at times. She was modest, but she loved the star treatment when she got it. She never learned to drive, but she got everywhere she wanted to go. She never had a computer or a cell phone; she never even had an answering machine, but she never lacked for conversation or love or affection from those around her. Now, in some ways, her time here on earth is over, but in another way, she will live on through her music and through the friendship and the memories she left with us.”
After the memorial service concluded, Dickens was laid to rest at Roselawn Memorial Gardens, as a white dove representing her spirit flew free towards to the sky to these words of her own 'Pretty Bird,' read by Rev. Jimmy Dickens.
“Fly away, little pretty bird, and pretty you'll always stay / Fly far beyond the dark mountain, to where you'll be free ever more / Fly away, little pretty bird, where the cold winter winds don't blow”