Hazel Dickens was still in her teens when her family moved from Mercer County, West Virginia, to Baltimore in 1954. In this unlikely locale, one of the most important singers in bluegrass and old-timey music began her career. Before long her voice, which tempers the high-lonesome cry of bluegrass singers with a soulful warmth lifted from classic honky-tonk, had gained her entree into the burgeoning folk revival movement. She sang and played bass with local groups for several years. In 1962 she met Alice Gerrard, a classically trained singer fascinated with folk music, and the two formed a groundbreaking duo, becoming the first female-fronted bluegrass act to make a record. They performed a mix of originals and traditional tunes that they'd uncovered in the Library of Congress archives or heard at festivals, paying special attention to songs with feminist themes. Their mid-60s recordings, collected in 1996 on Pioneering Women of Bluegrass (Smithsonian/Folkways), blended bluegrass with old-timey folk styles, and their sweet-and-sour harmonies, so beautifully balanced that the singers seem telepathic, became a major influence for female bluegrass musicians to come. (If you're looking for the blueprint for Freakwater, here it is.) The duo made a few more albums for Rounder but had split up by 1976. Since then Dickens has recorded three more albums--all classics--but she's never strayed far from the style of those initial recordings. This rare local appearance is billed as "Music & Conversation with Hazel Dickens & Friends." As part of the performance Dickens and three singers associated with or influenced by her--Ginny Hawker, Tracy Schwarz, and Mike Seeger--will be interviewed by country historian Bill Malone. Sunday, November 10, 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Irene Young.