Informed by archival interviews, writings, correspondence, and performances by Hazel Dickens, and inspired by Jessica Wilkerson’s 2019 NPR article “A Lifetime Of Labor: Maybelle Carter At Work,” West Virginia state folklorist Emily Hilliard considers musician Hazel Dickens’s experiences as a woman engaged in a lifetime of both wage work and care work. This lived experience, as well as Hazel’s approach to music as work, was the foundation which directly informed her identity formation, inspired her songwriting, and fueled her advocacy for working people across the globe.
Hazel Dickens was counting inventory at her retail job in Washington, D.C., frustrated by the long hours and wishing she could be somewhere else, when inspiration struck. She scribbled the lines on the back of her inventory card:
Well I’m tired of working my life way
And giving someone else all of my pay
While they get rich on the profits that I lose
And leaving me here with the working girl blues.
She shared the song with her women coworkers who identified with the lyrics so strongly, they would sometimes sing it together on the job as they folded clothes, counted the register, and closed up shop for the night.
Though Hazel Dickens is best known as a pioneering woman of bluegrass and for her powerful labor songs advocating for working people, she was one of those working people she sang about, juggling her music with full-time jobs until late in her career. While she ultimately felt that music saved her from a life of monotonous, back-breaking work, she also regarded music as work.
“I have worked all my life,” she said in 2001, when she was in her late sixties. “I have worked all my life. I know what work is, and I know you have to commit yourself to it. Once I commit myself to that bluegrass festival, I’m gonna do the best job that I can do... I consider it a job, I consider it a privilege, I consider it a gift to have the vocal power, and I consider it an honor to have all these people like me [in the audience].”
While music “gave her a life” as she said, the truth is, Hazel also encountered many of the same obstacles in her musical career—sexism, unequal and low pay, sexual harassment, and poor working conditions—that she faced as a factory worker, waitress, and retail employee in Baltimore and D.C. “I didn’t have to work in a factory to see how badly women were treated,” she says in her biography. “Playing bluegrass, a male dominated form of music, was enough.”
Hazel was able to connect the world of work and the world of music, in the topical subjects of her lyrics, her performances at worker rallies, strike benefits, and picket lines, and interviews that contextualized her songs within her own lived experience.
Hazel Jane Dickens was born in Montcalm, West Virginia, on June 1, 1935, the eighth of eleven children in a religious and musical family. Her father, Hillary N. Dickens, cut timber and worked as a truck driver for a coal company, and later became a Primitive Baptist preacher. Her mother, Sarah Aldora Dickens, didn’t work outside the home, but Hazel was always quick to assure any interviewer that her mother did indeed work—rather “nothing but work, all her life”—cooking, cleaning, and raising eleven children in a poor household whose income was tied to the boom-and-bust cycle of the coal industry.
Hazel’s brothers, brothers-in-law, and male cousins worked in the mines, many of them eventually contracting black lung due to unsafe conditions. She left school after seventh grade and worked for a short time in a textile mill just across the border in Virginia. Her older sister had moved to Baltimore in the ’40s to work in the shipyards. In search of a better job, Hazel followed her in 1951, making a permanent move there in 1954.
Baltimore and D.C. in the 1950s and early 1960s were hubs of cultural interchange. They both offered proximity to the South, opportunities to make money, and availability of federal jobs—which had arguably less discriminatory hiring practices than the private sector, drawing both white and Black southerners to the area. While Hazel found a community of other Appalachian migrants in her Baltimore neighborhood and in the factories she worked in, she also felt lonely, unsocialized, and unprepared for city life. She was shy by nature, disheartened by the discrimination she had witnessed against “hillbillies” in the city, and deterred by the working conditions at her blue-collar jobs. Eventually, her sister Velvie Woolwine helped her get a union job at the Continental Can Factory.
“That was the first time I encountered working people speaking up for themselves and having other people like the union looking out for you,” she recalled. “I’d never experienced that in the workforce, because I’d usually done waitress work or factories that didn’t have a union, and they could fire you at will.”
Though Hazel had sung and played guitar since she was young, she credited her encounters with the middle-class, college-educated young people she met in Baltimore with teaching her to appreciate her own talent and value her family’s music as a serious art form. On meeting musician and folk song collector Mike Seeger; social worker, activist, and close friend Alyse Taubman; and others like them in the mid-’50s, Hazel said, “It was definitely the turning point in my life. Because I started to actually look at music very differently, you know, and look at myself very differently, like I did maybe have something to offer.”
In return, Hazel and other working-class Appalachian musicians in the city introduced young urban “folkniks” to an authentic musical tradition that was actually embedded in familial and community life, a far cry from the shallow, sanitized interpretations of folk standards made popular by Burl Ives and the Kingston Trio. Hazel and Mike began playing together informally with Hazel’s brothers and soon joined a band with Bobby Baker and other male musicians from Appalachia. With the Pike County Boys, as they were called, Hazel began playing professionally in the hillbilly bars of migrant Baltimore. She continued working at Continental Can for three or four years, but had trouble balancing her music jobs with her hours at the factory, so she moved on to retail work.
Hazel was almost always the lone woman performer in the bluegrass bands that were forming and playing in the city at that time. “There were few choices open to women in those days, and working conditions left a lot to be desired, when and if you did work. If I was working, I was generally the only female in the band. So I got hit on all the time, and they got mad when I turned them down. That made working conditions even more tense.”
Hazel often told the story of when she realized she was being paid less than her male counterparts: one night when the club owner was absent, one of her bandmates divvied up their pay in his stead, unknowingly giving her an equal share for the first time. The owner had been skimming three dollars off her pay each gig and pocketing her tips. Hazel faced the same issue in the workforce too, where in one cleaning job, she found out the owner had been paying a college boy $50 more per week than her, for the same work. To make herself more hirable as a musician, Hazel learned to play upright bass but still had difficulty booking gigs, or “freelancing,” as she called it, because she was a woman.
“If they could get a man to do your job,” she said, “they wouldn’t hire you.”
Hazel’s song catalog is often divided into separate categories of personal songs, women’s songs, and labor songs. But in her view and experience, these issues all bled together; her songs address struggle against any form of domination and oppression, whether of women, workers, or herself. As she says in what she called her most autobiographical song:
She’s not an angel, so don’t look for her wings
She’s a hurtin’ woman who lives the song she sings
She learned them all the hard way on the streets all alone
That’s why it’s hard to tell the singer from the song
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Of her 2000 documentary, It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song, about Hazel, which borrows its title from this song, director Mimi Pickering comments, “Hazel wrote these powerful songs about the lives of working women and men that have become emblematic for many, but I wanted to let her make it clear that they were direct representations of her life. And all the more powerful because of that!”
Hazel includes within her scope all forms of work, paid or not. In her songs, she writes not only of the plight of those engaged in waged work—miners in songs like “Black Lung,” and “The Mannington Mine Disaster,” child migrant workers as in “Little Lenaldo,” and retail employees in “Working Girl Blues”—but also of the unpaid domestic and care work undertaken by women as wives, mothers, and housekeepers, She wrote the song “Old Calloused Hands” for her sister who worked in a factory, laundry, and as a domestic for coal company bosses before she married, and then as a housewife and mother of nine, living with an abusive husband.
“He told her that she was no more than a maid to him, and that if it wasn’t for the cleaning and cooking she did, he would have thrown her out long ago,” Hazel wrote in her autobiography. “This song is for her.” She sings plaintively:
Now she worked hard and slaved her life away
For her husband and her family
Now she’s shoved aside like some worn-out shoe
That’s her reward for all she’s been through
Often ahead of her time, Hazel even spoke up for sex workers, noting when she introduced her song “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” at the 1973 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, that she wrote it “in defense of prostitutes.” Throughout her life, Hazel lived and witnessed the reality of the old adage, “a man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done,” and her understanding of and respect for the variety of work that women undertake is reflected in her songs.
Hazel had a strong moral compass and was motivated by her feelings of solidarity with her fellow workers. “If there’s any religion in my life, it’s for the working class,” she wrote. “And I want to be that way as long as I have breath.” Even when she was a successful and celebrated musician, Hazel still felt grateful and a bit surprised she was able to find a working life in music that fulfilled and sustained her beyond mere wages.
When Bill Malone asked her—a National Heritage Fellow and an International Bluegrass Music Association Distinguished Achievement Award honoree, who had appeared at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival fifteen times—what her biggest accomplishment was, she replied simply, “My biggest accomplishment is the miracle I am here.” She credited her music with her survival, and as the force that eventually enabled her to withstand the systemic issues and structural forces she was subject to as an Appalachian woman and a worker.
“For me it [music] was a real lifesaver, because I was having people around me accept me,” she confided in 1984. “At that point because I had quit school. There was no money in the family to do anything else. I mean, you had to work or starve. It was a real lifesaver for me, and I don’t think there was anything else at that point that could have pulled me out of where I was at that stage in my life.”
Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia state folklorist and founding director of the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. She also co-owns the feminist record label SPINSTER. Find more of her work at emilyehilliard.com.
Thank you to Cecilia Peterson and Dave Walker of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Aaron Smithers of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina for their research assistance.
This article was produced for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s D.C.: The Social Power of Music program, which received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.