The University of Illinois Press has been gifting the literary marketplace with a gracious plenty of books about musicians – musicians who play, or "pick," in the traditional, folk, bluegrass, country and high lonesome vernacular. Working Girl Blues, the title taken from a song by that name written by the book's central character, is another in this string of notable genre offerings, which also include
Sing It Pretty (about Bess Lomax Hawes) and Lonesome Cowgirls and Honky Tonk Angels (about the roots of country western music from the female viewpoint). I mention these in particular as they have also been reviewed at Curled Up with a Good Book. And there are others, making it worth checking out
the UI Press website.
Bill C. Malone is a renowned author and music historian whose linkage with Hazel Dickens is a charm. Malone is always knee-deep in traditional sound, having written, for example,
Country Music USA and Don't Get Above Your Raisin'. Malone has chosen to pen a rather brief biography of Dickens, which nonetheless covers the high spots in considerable detail – from Hazel's humble beginnings growing up in Appalachian coal country, to her city sojourns with the greats of the political folk scene, to her gradual return to her roots as a stark, fine-edged and often unaccompanied singer in the old style.
Of course, Hazel's introduction to city life was never a departure for her. Living in Baltimore among such icons as Mike Seeger and his wife, Alice Gerrard, she absorbed the rarified air of intellectual subculture where people who were college-educated and city-bred sang about the folk, without losing her loyalty to and deep understanding of what it means to be the folk. Hazel and Alice
together were undoubtedly the single most important influence in endowing women with the "right" to sing and play bluegrass, which prior to their emergence on the scene had been the territory of men only
- and tough, autocratic men, at that. Through the exposure of the dynamic "Hazel and Alice" duo, Hazel's powerful voice and emotive songwriting got the attention they deserved. She appeared in the films
Matewan and The Songcatcher as well as in the documentary Harlan County USA. Her strong, distinctive voice holds within it the suffering and the life force of her people. I have sat in music jams with Hazel at local fiddler's conventions hereabouts and always found her to be modest and generous, though naturally her voice dominates where her personality does not. I once heard a private recording of Hazel singing a traditional ballad,
Lady Margaret, at a folk festival. She was unaccompanied. At the end of the song, as the last note died, the audience paid tribute first with silence, then thunderous applause.
The second half of the book comprises Hazel's song lyrics and her own thoughts about each composition. The opportunity to get inside the head of a writer is always welcome, and certainly so in the case of Hazel Dickens, whose writing style is informed not just by the political struggles she embraces but by the ancient ambience of the oral music heritage in which she is steeped. The titles alone are poetry:
It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, Won't You Come and Sing for Me,
Mama's Hands. The stories behind them will be welcome lore for Hazel's fans, making this an altogether collectable book for musicians and audiences alike.