Today, I wanted to share a song by one of my favorite folk artists, Hazel Dickens. I stumbled across this song while curating music for a play set in the Appalachian mountains. Hazel Dickens is known primarily for her one of a kind vocal color, and her provocative pro-union feminist songs. In this song, the melody is simple and the text is hopeful and longing cry for personal freedom. Hazel Dickens’ raw vocal timbre beautifully carries out the simple yearning in the text. My heart breaks every time she flips between her vocal registers—it sounds as if she is holding back a tear single tear through the duration of the piece.
The path “We Shall Overcome” took from a Philadelphia minister’s hymnal in 1900 to become a universally recognizable anthem of our hopes for a more just society, led us to the Highlander Center, the behind the scenes hub of US social movements, their strategists and artists.
One of the things I love about the Highlander Center, perched on a hill in eastern Tennessee overlooking the Smokey Mountains, is that it points to the history and continuing possibility of cultural appreciation and political alignment between rural and urban working class communities. So often depicted as at odds with one another, or locked in the perpetual culture wars, the history of Highlander Center, upholding the racial justice work of the civil rights movement and the struggles for workers rights in Appalachia’s predominantly white working class communities shows that it is possible, and necessary to build solidarity between communities that face different aspects of the same structural injustices.
Hazel Dickens stands out to me as an artist rooted in her cultural tradition whose songs spoke to the specific plight of Appalachian coal mining communities and articulated a broader vision of setting things right. She shared her song 1973 “Black Lung,” about her brother’s fatal struggle with the coal miner’s disease at Highlander. Forty-five years later, the disease still affects tens of thousands of miners and retirees, and many go through long, expensive legal battles with their former employers to receive the health benefits they earned. Here is Hazel Dickens song, Black Lung:
This week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!
Hazel Dickens (1936-2011) was a true treasure, and her soulful performance of this song is one of my absolute favorites. Written as a memorial to her brother Thurman, a coal miner who died of the eponymous disease, she sings of Black Lung as a manifestation of Death personified. Here, Black Lung/Death is the only one there for the dying miner after all others–the boss, the doctors–have turned him away. “Well it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor.” He’s left to face Death alone, saying: “Black lung, black lung, your hand’s icy cold. / As you reach for my life, you torture my soul. / Cold as that waterhole down in the dark cave / where I spent my life’s blood, digging my grave.” A 2001Washington Post article said of Dickens, she “writes songs about two kinds of pain: the kind you can fix, like economic injustice, and the kind you can’t, like heartbreak and death.” This devastating song has some of each.
Hazel Dickens – Black Lung (1969)
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