You would have to understand my family background, along with my childhood and my upbringing, to figure out my taste in music. First of all, I’m an adopted child, born in Phoenix and raised in a small town in Cochise County, Arizona. My parents were both natives of West Virginia, who had migrated to Arizona in the early 1950’s because of the job growth. So I was raised in two cultures. One, the cowboy culture of Cochise County, and two, the mountain culture of West Virginia, the latter of which was a major influence in our home.
So the few stations that you could get on the radio broadcast mostly what we would call classic country music, mixed in with a little bit of bluegrass. The closest station with the clearest signal was owned by Rex Allen, and I think they had a record collection they had collected in the 50’s and 60’s and just played over and over, not bringing in a whole lot of new music. We could also pick up a couple of “rock” stations from Tucson, KTKT, known as “Channel 99,” and KIKX 58. So my music tastes were a blend of those, along with the genuine mountain and hillbilly bluegrass from the stacks and stacks of records that my parents owned. Outside of the mountain music, Lawrence Welk and Perry Como rounded out their music collection.
I went to my first bluegrass festival in 1976. It was the fourth of July weekend in Williamson, West Virginia, a coal mining town buried as deep in the Appalachians as you can get without coming out on the other side. There’s a sound with mountain bluegrass that sets it apart from other forms of music. The singers are full voice, pushing the notes out with force, a piercing, penetrating sound with a few vocal nuances that capture you and bring you right into the song. It’s music that comes from deep inside.
Hazel Dickens is, perhaps, the best example of this kind of music. She was a preacher’s daughter, raised in the Primitive Baptist Church in the deep hills of Southern West Virginia. Like so many others from the same area, she left home at 16 and made her way to Baltimore and Washington, DC to live with siblings who were already there, working in the factories. Her musical talent soon led to playing and singing with others who had left the mountains to seek a better life elsewhere. Her career, in what most professionals would call a limited genre, inspired other female singers in the Country and Western genre like Emmylou Harris and Kathy Mattea, who were superstars.
Hazel’s music reflected who she was. She wrote and sang songs about life in the hills of West Virginia, which revolved around the Primitive Baptist Church where her father preached. She wrote songs of praise to God, and expressing her faith in Jesus. She discovered that, even in factory work, or in the businesses where she was employed in Baltimore and Washington, working class employees were often underpaid, overworked and poorly treated. Combining that experience with her knowledge of the hard life and working conditions of coal miners in her native state, she became an advocate for workers everywhere, writing songs about coal mining and powerful pieces like “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” about the struggles of miners to form unions, and the better life that they promised.
Being a working man’s son, that music resonates with me. The picture Hazel paints in her music is far from that of the agitating union activist, anti-business, semi-communist perspective that the media portrays. She understood the suffering and the hardships, and she understood that the lack of education and sophistication of the coal mining community, and their dependence on their employer not only for a job, but in many cases for housing and food, left them in miserable debt and at a clear disadvantage. She also understood the dangers involved, and the seeming lack of concern on the part of mine owners for the safety of their workers. This is expressed in a genuinely emotional rendition of “The Mannington Mine Disaster,” which she wrote in memorial to 78 miners who were burned alive in an explosion.
The pacifist inside me resonates with her songs that promote peace. “Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands” is almost a hand-clapping gospel song you could sing in church, and the Primitive Baptists, who are generally considered as consciencious objectors, probably did sing it. If Hazel were still writing music today, I guess she’d probably be promoting universal health care.
But when I listen to Hazel’s music now, I think of my parents. They’ve both gone on to be with the Lord, and I live within an easy hour and a half’s drive of where they grew up. I’ve had some great afternoons, driving into those rolling hills, with Hazel’s music playing in the car, songs like “West Virginia My Home,” “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” and “Hills of Home.” They, too, left West Virginia’s green, rolling hills, a place they loved, with family they loved, to find a better life out west. Now, in my spare time, I try to connect with the family members that are left there, and just enjoy feeling the hills around me.
I’m surprised that the state hasn’t adopted those songs all as official state anthems. Hazel also went home to be with the Lord recently, and when I hear those songs now, I can imagine she’s met my parents, and they are gathering in a circle of people from West Virginia, remembering the hills of home.