“Making a Living by the Sweat of Her Brow”: Hazel Dickens and a Life of WorkRoundup
tags: labor, music, West Virginia, womens history, Appalachia, working class history
Emily Hilliard is the West Virginia state folklorist and founding director of the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. She also co-owns the feminist record label SPINSTER. Find more of her work at emilyehilliard.com.
Hazel Dickens was counting inventory at her retail job in Washington, D.C., frustrated by the long hours and wishing she could be somewhere else, when inspiration struck. She scribbled the lines on the back of her inventory card:
Well I’m tired of working my life way
And giving someone else all of my pay
While they get rich on the profits that I lose
And leaving me here with the working girl blues.
She shared the song with her women coworkers who identified with the lyrics so strongly, they would sometimes sing it together on the job as they folded clothes, counted the register, and closed up shop for the night.
Though Hazel Dickens is best known as a pioneering woman of bluegrass and for her powerful labor songs advocating for working people, she was one of those working people she sang about, juggling her music with full-time jobs until late in her career. While she ultimately felt that music saved her from a life of monotonous, back-breaking work, she also regarded music as work.
“I have worked all my life,” she said in 2001, when she was in her late sixties. “I have worked all my life. I know what work is, and I know you have to commit yourself to it. Once I commit myself to that bluegrass festival, I’m gonna do the best job that I can do... I consider it a job, I consider it a privilege, I consider it a gift to have the vocal power, and I consider it an honor to have all these people like me [in the audience].”
While music “gave her a life” as she said, the truth is, Hazel also encountered many of the same obstacles in her musical career—sexism, unequal and low pay, sexual harassment, and poor working conditions—that she faced as a factory worker, waitress, and retail employee in Baltimore and D.C. “I didn’t have to work in a factory to see how badly women were treated,” she says in her biography. “Playing bluegrass, a male dominated form of music, was enough.”
Hazel was able to connect the world of work and the world of music, in the topical subjects of her lyrics, her performances at worker rallies, strike benefits, and picket lines, and interviews that contextualized her songs within her own lived experience.
Hazel Jane Dickens was born in Montcalm, West Virginia, on June 1, 1935, the eighth of eleven children in a religious and musical family. Her father, Hillary N. Dickens, cut timber and worked as a truck driver for a coal company, and later became a Primitive Baptist preacher. Her mother, Sarah Aldora Dickens, didn’t work outside the home, but Hazel was always quick to assure any interviewer that her mother did indeed work—rather “nothing but work, all her life”—cooking, cleaning, and raising eleven children in a poor household whose income was tied to the boom-and-bust cycle of the coal industry.
Hazel’s brothers, brothers-in-law, and male cousins worked in the mines, many of them eventually contracting black lung due to unsafe conditions. She left school after seventh grade and worked for a short time in a textile mill just across the border in Virginia. Her older sister had moved to Baltimore in the ’40s to work in the shipyards. In search of a better job, Hazel followed her in 1951, making a permanent move there in 1954.
Baltimore and D.C. in the 1950s and early 1960s were hubs of cultural interchange. They both offered proximity to the South, opportunities to make money, and availability of federal jobs—which had arguably less discriminatory hiring practices than the private sector, drawing both white and Black southerners to the area. While Hazel found a community of other Appalachian migrants in her Baltimore neighborhood and in the factories she worked in, she also felt lonely, unsocialized, and unprepared for city life. She was shy by nature, disheartened by the discrimination she had witnessed against “hillbillies” in the city, and deterred by the working conditions at her blue-collar jobs. Eventually, her sister Velvie Woolwine helped her get a union job at the Continental Can Factory.
“That was the first time I encountered working people speaking up for themselves and having other people like the union looking out for you,” she recalled. “I’d never experienced that in the workforce, because I’d usually done waitress work or factories that didn’t have a union, and they could fire you at will.”