News/Thoughts

Women Bluegrass Pioneers

Recently, at the International Bluegrass Music Association gathering in Raleigh, NC, the AR folks staffed a booth in the exhibit hall. Across from the AR booth was an exhibit promoting a filmmaker’s effort to honor music pioneer, Alice Gerrard. Should you not know, Alice Gerrard along with Hazel Dickens, her friend and fellow pioneering woman in bluegrass music, were among the 2017 Inductees into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame. These ladies were being honored by the IBMA / for their outstanding contributions to bluegrass music. This is a very special award as it is peer–driven and thus shows the respect and recognition that their fellow professionals have for these ladies’ accomplishments in one or more aspects of the field. After all this excitement, I sensed that I needed to know a bit more about these ladies and share what I learned with you.

The IBMA web site, ibma.org/awards/hall-of-fame, provides us with this description of these two pioneering women in bluegrass music. “Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard first appeared together at the Galax Fiddler’s Convention in 1962 and remained a powerful music duo through 1976. They are considered pioneers because Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard successfully put women front and center in bluegrass music at a time when bluegrass music was widely perceived as a genre only men could perform. Dickens was from rural West Virginia while Gerrard was a west coast native yet their mutual love for the emerging musical genre drew them both to the lively Baltimore-Washington area folk and bluegrass music scene, where they met.”

womenIn the Beginning
Beginning in 1965, Dickens and Gerrard created four albums of music together. The first album featured a band that included respected musicians—bluegrass legends Lamar Grier, Chubby Wise, David Grisman, and Billy Baker. Backed by this lineup of talented players, Dickens and Gerrard were able to demonstrate to listeners that hard-driving bluegrass could be created by women as well as men. Contained within two of their later albums is material that ranges beyond bluegrass style and features original compositions that addressed political issues, including social justice.

During their long musical careers, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard garnered numerous awards and honors. Fans best remember Dickens for her songwriting skills while Gerrard’s fame came about because of her many journalistic accomplishments at Bluegrass Unlimited but is better remembered as the founding editor of The Old Time Herald.

Many current leading women singers as well as socially conscious musicians in general consider Hazel and Alice as important inspirations to them.

Alice Gerrard
Alice Gerrard was born in Seattle, WA on July 8, 1934 and grew up in California where she attended Antioch College in the late 1950s. During her collage years, Gerrard became exposed to old-time music and the new sound called bluegrass and embraced it wholeheartedly learning to play both guitar and banjo and later old-time fiddle. This musical attraction led Alice to relocate to the Washington, D.C. area where there was a thriving bluegrass scene. While at collage, Alice met and married Jeremy Foster (a friend and former classmate of Mike Seeger). Foster lost his life in a car accident and Gerrard later married Mike Seeger. During the 60s and 70s, Gerrard wrote and recorded with Seegar, Dickens and many others.

In 1987 Alice founded The Old-Time Herald and the Old-Time Music Group, a non-profit organization that oversees publication of the magazine. Alice served as editor-in-chief of The Old-Time Herald from 1987 till 2003.

During her 40 plus year career, Gerrard has written and recorded with many different musicians and has become an authority on old-time music. She has appeared on more than 20 recordings, including projects with many traditional musicians. As an expert with in-depth knowledge of mountain music, she has produced or written liner notes for many more. She has also co-produced and appeared in two documentary films. She is a tireless advocate of traditional music.

Alice Gerrard at age 83 remains an active performer and resides in Durham, NC.

Hazel Dickens
The more opaque member of this women bluegrass pioneers duo known as Hazel and Alice, is Hazel Jane Dickens. Hazel was born June 1, 1935, in Mercer County, WVA. She was one of 11 children in a family whose survival depended on the coal industry. Dickens’ father was a primitive Baptist preacher and a forceful singer. He hauled timber to feed the household. Hazel’s brothers were miners and one of her sisters cleaned houses for a living. In keeping with the familiar story of so many early string music pioneers, Hazel and her family sang in church and listened to music they heard on the radio especially that music broadcast from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Music offered one of Hazel’s few diversions.

Hazel moved to Baltimore in the early 1950s and sought employment in factories there. The life she found in the city was not much better than the life she’d known in the coal fields of Mercer County, but it did exposure her to the larger social and political world. It was in this environment Hazel met and started playing music with the singer and folk historian Mike Seeger. Seegar eventually introduced Hazel Dickens to Alice Gerrard. This 1960’s partnership with Gerrard was one of the first women duos to record a bluegrass album using the same tenor and lead-vocal arrangements as many of the performing male groups of the era.

Dickens and Gerrard wrote songs about various aspects of life, as well as performing together at numerous folk festivals all over the south. Their work influenced countless traditional music fans as well as pioneering the role of women in bluegrass.

Over the following decades, Dickens performed and recorded with Gerrard, others, and as a solo artist as well as penning many songs that addressed social injustices. Over the course of her career, Hazel became a reluctant feminist role model. Stories tell that Dickens was originally scared to write about issues like sexism and the oppression of women.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “Her (Dicken’s) music was characterized not only by her high, lonesome singing style, but also by her provocative pro-union, and feminist songs.” Many sources report incidents of Hazel Dickens walking picket lines beside striking workers. She became a vocal supporter and advocate for the nation’s un-unionized coal miners.

In 1994, Dickens became the first woman to receive the IBMA Merit Award for her contributions to that genre of music. She was later inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor. Hazel Dickens received many other awards, including a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. She also collaborated with Bill Malone on a book about her life and music. Titled Working Girl Blues, this book was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2001.

Hazel Dickens died April 22, 2011 from complications of pneumonia. No immediate family members survive.

Epilog
Every so often there occurs a time when paradigms shift, and thereafter things are never quite the same. This meeting and paring of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard was such a time.

Videos of Dickens’ and Gerrard’s work are available on the YouTube.com website; and I recommend a musical field trip there to take a look and listen. This pair’s four classic, groundbreaking albums that influenced scores of young women singers have been re-mastered and re-sequenced by Rounder Records and released on compact disc. This example merits a listen as well. Further, if you have any interest in old-time music, you should give a look at Alice Gerrard’s creation The Old-Time Herald. It is still in print and going strong.

By Ed Tutwiler

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