Protest songs date back centuries and cross every cultural and musical genre, lending a voice to those oppressed by societal problems, brutal labor practices or political conflict and war. When a song becomes symbolic of a particular social struggle, it transforms into an agent of change in itself, helping to build strength of purpose in its participants, steeling them for struggles that are often long and brutal. Well known examples include Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”, which exemplified the anti-war movement and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, the anthem of the civil rights struggle.
Radio had a tremendous impact on the spread of music over vast areas of the nation. In earlier years, performers often worked regionally for an entire career, unless they enjoyed a jukebox hit which might then be followed by sales of sheet music and albums. Border radio stations like XER changed all that, leveling the playing field and bringing the music of the south to listeners on all corners of the US. Owned by the notorious quack doctor, John R .Brinkley to promote his medical treatments without the interference of the US government, he wisely began to import great musical acts like the Carter Family to perform daily. He hired some of the finest talent to be had, and soon the entire nation knew songs like “Worried Man Blues” as well as the music of Roy Acuff, the Louvin Brothers and Ernest Tubb.
Among those who were immersed in that great music was Hazel Dickens. Born in Montcalm, Mercer County, West Virginia in June 1935, she was the eighth of 11 children of Hillary N. and Sarah Aldora Dickens. Montcalm is in coal country, not far from Harlan County, Kentucky, where the Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County USA was filmed, telling the story of a protracted strike and featuring Dickens singing her song “Black Lung” on the soundtrack. The Dickens family struggled to survive and lived a simple life, bolstered by the Primitive Baptist church, where Hillary was a leader and preached the gospel and plain-sung hymns were heard. Hillary was a banjo player and music lover and the family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on WSN as well as border radio; the children were all music lovers, though Dickens displayed a love of singing at an early age.
By the time she was 16, the mechanization of the coal industry was in full swing and the Dickens family had spent a number of years ever more desperately, watching the end of their way of life grow nearer and nearer. The children began moving away from home, seeking relatively well-paying factory jobs in Baltimore and Washington, DC. In Baltimore, Dickens met social radicals for the first time and she began to perform music, at first with the half brother of folk legend Pete Seeger’s brother, Mike.
This led to her learning to play string bass, and getting her first real band job, in the Pike County Boys, a bluegrass band playing out in the clubs of Baltimore. Her feminist feelings were roused by her treatment at the hands of male musicians and club owners, as well as her sober observations from the stage. These feelings eventually formed the core of one of her greatest songs, “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There”.
Dickens’ upbringing in coal country, struggles in the city, and outrage at the inequality of her sex, became classic subjects of some of her greatest songs including “Black Lung”, “Working Girl Blues”, “Its Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song”, “They’ll Never Keep Us Down”, “The Yablonsky Murder”, and others. Her work has now ranged for 40 years, winning her numerous prestigious awards and adulation from several generations of performers. One notable example is a young Naomi Judd, who bought one of Dickens’ albums used for $1 and was inspired to strive for a career in music.
Working Girl Blues is a slim book in two parts, the first devoted to an exceptional biography by noted country music author and historian Bill C. Malone, and the second a compendium of songs lyrics and comments from Dickens. They’ve also included two sections of great photographs in this short but thoroughly enjoyable read. It was published as part of the Music in American Life series from the University of Illinois Press, which provides a wealth of information on country, bluegrass, blues, jazz and other roots music idioms.
Malone tells Dicken’s life story describing the changing times in America and her reactions to them, painting a terrific portrait of the genesis of her work. While only 29 pages, Malone’s scholarly voice is by no means stodgy – he encapsulates the crucial aspect of her story, then steps out of the way and lets Dickens take a crack at it. Dickens selected 40 of her most well known songs about coal mining, labor issues, relationships and life in Appalachia to include. Each is accompanied by lyrics and Dicken’s comments on the song itself, explaining how she came to write them and their personal meanings.
She shares highly specific recollections of moments long past as well as sharp commentary on much more current happenings like the enactment of the free trade agreement NAFTA (“America’s Poor”). With a seventh grade education, Dickens has a spare, homey style of writing whose rhythms will be very familiar to those with southern backgrounds, her voice is that of the classic storyteller and leaves one wishing for more expanded remembrances.
Even though Hazel Dickens has thrived in the rather obscure side of the music world, her contributions have been truly invaluable. All fans of traditional music and students of feminism, southern culture and labor movements, should read and revel in Working Girl Blues.