Review: A Tribute to the Life & Music of Hazel Dickens. May 30, 2011, Banjo Jim’s
On April 22, Hazel Dickens, a matriarch of traditional music borne just not of hard times but of an unforgiving capitalistic oppression that, in many ways, continues to this day in the coal fields of the Appalachian mountains passed away. Only Mother Maybelle Carter can be said to have been such a musical voice and influence as Hazel Dickens.
However, Hazel went further as her songs defied the oppressors, whether they be systems or men. She also wrote searing feminist and anti-war songs before such songs were acceptable in the land where she was born. In “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains From Your Hands?” she bluntly put herself in an anti-war camp at a time when young men from the mountains, who believed in the sanctity of their government, were being used as canon fodder. Just as those in the coal fields were used as fodder for the great coal machine.
The unfettered production of coal has not only resulted in medical, educational and economic impoverishment in the region, it now threatens us all with playing a significant role in global warming. Just as it was then, denial is still with us.
This is, by way of introduction, how I knew Hazel. While she was frail from birth, her voice and spirit were strong. Anyone who ever came into contact with her could tell that from the beginning. From her recordings, especially the early ones, you can still feel the stark resonance of cold, hard, dark times.
Hazel used her experiences and talents to express many things to many people as hard times know no color, no geography, no ethnic background.
It was with this spirit, this longing, that some of New York’s finest musicians gathered at Banjo Jim’s on the lower east side on Memorial Day, May 30, to remember and pay tribute to Hazel’s life and music.
Put together by Danny Weiss and Mary Olive Smith — both mainstays of the local Americana music scene — Monday night was not a somber affair, but rather a rousing night of Hazel’s songs — those she wrote and those she performed– by some who had performed with her and all who had been inspired by her.
The house band for the three hour evening consisted not only of Mr. Weiss and Ms. Smith, but Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin), Tony Triska (banjo), Kenny Kosek (the best fiddler I had not heard of), Skip Ward (bass) and Trip Henderson (harmonica) that fronted guest instrumentalists and vocalists. After a short instrumental to warm up the band and quiet the wall-to-wall audience, the evening began with Hazel’ s voice piercing though the sound system to a dead silent crowd that stood just inches away from the band. It was an authentic voice, not deadened by fame, from another place and time. Some were just visiting, some have taken it into their lives, some rest there still and for me it was the foreign country of my childhood.
It took a few moments to regain our composure, fittingly enough the evening’s first live song was one Hazel heard growing up and often performed, the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” by Danny Weiss and Mary Olive Smith. It was then pretty much non-stop with Linda King going straight to the hard stuff and hitting us right between the eyes with “Don’t Put Her Down, Cause You Put Her There” in a voice most like Hazel’s.
That evening we expierenced Hazel through her music, not through unnecessary words of praise, after all we knew the stories, the history. When those words came, however, they were sweetly eloquent. Most notably Barbara Kopple the Oscar winning director of “Harlan County, U.S.A.” who, while using Hazel’s music in the picture, did not meet her until the filming had been completed. In addition to the rawness of the film itself, many felt at the time that Hazel’s contributions to the film, her approval you might say, gave it and Ms. Kopple a legitimacy that was not easily conferred upon outsiders, especially at that time.
But Hazel knew that if you were not on the inside, you were an outsider and outsiders had to stand together.
But the only outsiders at Banjo Jim’s on Monday night were the ones ones who had had to listen on the venue’s outside steps and street as it was so packed inside that the front of the crowd stood no more than six inches from the performers and new guests had to navigate that small space to get to what passed as the stage.
There was not a false note that evening and too many highlights to mention them all — the entire setlist and the performers are listed below — but ones that especially spoke to me were “Mama’s Hand” by Elena Skye and Ms. Smith’s “You’ll Get No More of Me.”
(Skip Ward, Tony Trischka, Danny Weiss, Mary Olive Smith, Jen Larsen, Jan Bell, Elena Skye, Michael Daves, Hilary Hawke, Diane Stockwell, Linda King)
While it was readily apparent that nearly all of us knew the songs by heart, it was a bittersweet ending to the evening that all the performers crowded together to sing the closer, “West Virginia My Home,” along with soft reverential hums and whispers from the audience. It was quite a moment as I stood still watching and listening to those around me being so moved by our Hazel and my state.
Two more tributes will be held, both in West Virginia. The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame is sponsoring one in Beckley on June 3. On Sunday, June 5 the Culture Center in Charleston, the March on Blair Mountain will host its tribute to Hazel. Hazel was to participate in a concert for the March to Save Blair Mountain on June 5, instead, it will become a memorial for her. It will be headlined by Grammy winner Tim O’Brien and will feature Elaine Purkey, Ginny Hawker, Tracy Schwarz, David Morris, John Lilly and Vince Herman. Blair Mountain played a significant role in the coal mining wars and is set to be strip mined.
(Event photos by Amos Perrine, poster courtesy of Danny Weiss)
1. Hello Stranger — Mary Olive and Danny Weiss (Reckon So)
2. Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here — Linda King & Jay Jannuzzi (Citizens Band Radio)
3. Lost Patterns — Linda King & Jay Jannuzzi
4. Black Lung — Jan Bell (and the Maybelles)
5. Coal Miner’s Grave — Jan Bell (with Hilary Hawke)
6. Cowboy Jim — Hilary Hawke (& the Flipsides)
7. Busted — Danny Weiss
8. Just A Few Old Memories –Jen Larsen
9. Pretty Bird — Jen Larsen
10. My Better Years — Liz Tormes
11. Only the Lonely — Liz Tormes
12. Montana Cowboy — Mary Olive Smith (with Jen Larsen)
13. Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia — The Whistling Wolves
14. Fire in the Hole — The Whistling Wolves
15. Working Girl Blues — Michal Shapiro
16. Won’t You Come and Sing For Me — Gene Yellin (with Michal Shapiro)
17. Out Among the Stars — Gene Yellin (with Michal Shapiro)
18. The Rebel Girl — Elena Skye (with Diane Stockwell)
19. Mama’s Hand — Elena Skye (with Jen Larsen)
20. Custom-made Woman — Diane Stockwell
21. Coal Tattoo — Sheriff Bob
22. You’ll Get No More of Me — Mary Olive Smith
23. They’ll Never Keep Us Down — Danny Weiss
24. The One I Love Is Gone — Michael Daves (with Jen Larsen)
25. Train on the Island — Michael Daves
26. West Virginia My Home — Closer with everyone
The House Band:
Danny Weiss – guitar – vocals
Mary Olive Smith guitar – vocals
Barry Mitterhoff – mandolin
Tony Trischka – banjo
Kenny Kosek – fiddle
Trip Henderson – harmonica
Skip Ward – bass