Hazel & Alice 35:510:00/35:51
Episode 3 Transcription
We sing what we want to sing, if we don’t like it we don’t sing it. We don't let anybody tell us what to sing. We don't ask anybody what to sing.
I don't feel as though I would ever compromise what I consider to be my musical values for the sake of making money.
Everything’s gotten so commercial, you know everything’s geared toward making that buck. I don't know, I’ve just been into such a different thing these past few years, just Getting more into my tradition and good music.
There is something about hearing music being played by musicians motivated, not by commercial success, not by being the next big thing, but by the love of tapping into tradition and sharing it with friends. The kind of music I’m talking about is most commonly played around kitchen tables, in parking lots outside of festivals, on front porches and in living rooms.
The quilt of this music is sewn together with fiddles, banjos, autoharps, jugs, guitars, mandolins, washboards, and the pure sound of the human voice. It dips into a time in American history where it’s hard to separate the music from the lives of the folks pickin’ on the porch. This is the world Hazel Dickens came from.
Hazel Dickens was born and raised in the coal mining country of Wet Virginia into a singing family. Here’s Hazel, in her own voice, recorded by Cathy Fink and Duck Donald, for a CBC radio documentary in the mid-seventies:
I was one of 11 children. A lot of us in the family sang, uh, just like around the house or with neighbors. We didn't do it professionally. We never thought of doing it professionally until I moved to a city. And then got with some people who were like playing old bars and clubs around Baltimore.
After World War Two, the family moved to Baltimore. Music was often the only defense against the harsh realities she met there, including prejudices relating to having a southern accent and being a woman. The music gave her strength.
I played bass behind some bluegrass groups and sang a couple of country Western songs that women were doing then. Sang some tenor sometimes when they'd let me do that. And, uh, then, I guess I didn't meet Alice until much later. Oh, maybe, let’s see, (ALICE) probably about 57, (HAZEL) 57 maybe. And we didn't have any idea of singing together. We just were like partying together, getting together at people's houses and a bunch of musicians playing.
And that was sort of how it started at one of these parties—just singing for kicks. And we've been doing it ever since. It was quite kick.
Alice Gerard came from a singing family as well, but her tradition was more pop-classical. She was born in Seattle, but she attended Antioch College in Ohio. She developed her love of this old-time music when she moved to the Washington / Baltimore area in the mid-fifties and started making friends with all kinds of southern musicians and singers who had moved to the region to find work. Some found work, but they all found a place to share their music and their culture—a place where it would all be appreciated—Alice’s living room. At first, it was the instrumental music that attracted her. Hearing Hazel, and realizing how important singing was to her started to “rub off” on Alice, but it wasn’t until 1962 that they started singing together.
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerard released two records on the Folkways label prior to the release of Hazel & Alice on Rounder records in 1973. The folkways recordings put the emphasis on bluegrass, a style dominated by males, and featured the playing of David Grisman on mandolin, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Lamar Grier on banjo. In case you don’t know, that’s an amazing bluegrass back-up band. When Hazel & Alice was released, the emphasis shifted to more of an old-time sound, keeping Lamar Grier on the banjo, but this time surrounded by New Lost City Rambler’s Make Seeger & Tracy Schwartz. The Rounder release also featured both Alice and Hazel as songwriters.
This seems like a good time to talk a little bit about Rounder Records. Founded in 1970 in Somerville Mass., Rounder recordings reflected the tastes of the founders, Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin, and Marian Leighton Leevy. Their mission was to make available to the public the kind of music they loved but could not find on records—especially the old-time, stringband, ballad singers and bluegrass artists.. Rounder started about as small as a label can start—all out of a modest apartment shared by the founders. It has since blossomed into a major force in the music industry winning 54 Grammys and helping to both launch and revive careers. They were also inclusive to women. Before the release of Hazel & Alice, they introduced Almeda Riddle and Ola Belle Reed to their growing number of obscure record buyers.
These pioneering women of music were inspiring to Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerard—especially Ola Belle Reed who both, sang the old songs, and wrote a whole bunch of her own.
So Rounder Record’s 27th release featured two women—one from the country and one from the city—bound together in the love of music, tradition, and friendship. This collection of songs and style came directly out of the duo’s participation in the Southern Folk Festival tours starting in 1968. The tours highlighted the connection between music and culture and allowed them to develop a repertoire and sound that ended up being the 1973 Rounder Records release, Hazel and Alice.
The record opens with a song the duo heard on an old 78 recording by Trixie Smith and her Don Home Syncopaters—a band that featured Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, and was recorded in 1925. I won’t be able to do this with every song, but let’s get an an idea of what Hazel and Alice heard on the 78 and how they adapted to their style of singing and playing. Here’s Trixie Smith in 1925:
And here’s Mining Camp Blues by Hazel & Alice
I used the next track, the Carter Family’s Hello Stranger, at the top of this podcast. What has become a standard in the repertoires of bluegrass and old timey performers was relatively obscure before it appeared on the Hazel & Alice album.
The next song on the album is The Green Rolling Hills Of West Virgina was pretty much a new song at the time. It was written by Bruce “Utah” Phillips while on the bum, hitchhiking through West Virginia. After busking a bit in Wheeling, Utah headed up into the hollers. He found a kind older woman who gave him a place to stay. Here’s Utah in his own words…
Yeah, I put up at an older woman's house, quite an old woman. She let me sleep on her sleeping porch and, uh, and gave me a meal. And I commented on, uh, the city, a difference between the city between wheeling and where I was. And I said, well, why do people stay here? Why don't they go someplace else where there is some work? And she said, well, I guess it's these Hills. They just keep you and won't let you go. That morning I made up a song out of her words. She hadn't awakened and I was going to leave. So I wrote it on a piece of paper and left it on the dining room table as a thank you for the meal and for a place to sleep.
Utah’s version ended with that verse, but Hazel & Alice decided to add one more to, quote, leave an ongoing feeling.
A Few More Years will roll comes straight out of the Primitive Baptist Hymn Book. In the liner notes, Alices tells us that Hazel got this one from her father. Traditionally the hymn would be lined out. That is, the song leader would say the lines before the choir or congregation would sing them. Like this version from The Mecklenburg County Hymn Choir Union of Charlotte, North Carolina..
Hazel & Alice kept the slow style, but with out lining it out..
The duo creates their own arrangement of a ballad Alice learned from Mike Seeger. Mike found his version in West Liberty Kentucky. Two Soldiers is a tale of bravery, loyalty and death. You know, a folk ballad.
Side one of Hazel & Alice finishes up with sentimental The Sweetest Gift a Mother’s Smile—a song they got from the Bluesky Boys. then, a return to the bluegrass tradition found on their two previous Folkways releases. They didn’t have a recorded reference for this song, just Hazel’s great memory for such things, and they didn’t find out until later that Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone was actually composed by a woman—Wilma Lee Cooper. Well a composed piece written by a woman in a male dominated genre, sets up side two just perfectly.
Side two of Hazel and Alice turns away from traditional songs and puts the spotlight on songwriting. Themes of awakening, strength, equality, gratefulness, frustration and freedom permeate throughout, but are still presented in the traditional style. Of the six songs on side two, three were written by Hazel and three were written by Alice. Hazel was up first. My Better Years is a stark declaration of independence which, Hazel remarks in the liner notes, “was written from a personal experience” as were, she goes on to say a lot of the songs she’s written.
Alice follows up with her Custom Made Woman Blues—a song where the persona is trying to make sense and find meaning of a life previously dictated by men and systematic inequality. What are the lessons learned?
Hazel brings the idea home with her song Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There. A song that speaks directly to the men who she observed shaming women in some of the Baltimore bars and saloons where she played. She notes
quote, “Men can no longer place this burden of shame solely on the shoulders of women. He’s as much to blame as she is.”
There may have been thousands of women making statements like these in 1973, but not, I assure you, from the stages of bluegrass festivals in Virginia.
I mentioned gratefulness earlier. That refers to the next track on the LP, You Gave Me A Song. This is Alice’s thank-you and expression of friendship to Hazel Dickens. Clearly a friendship with a past a present and a future.
The album ends with a short banjo instrumental composed by Alice, called Gallup to Kansas. Before that though is Hazel’s powerful and enduring song of liberation, Pretty Bird. In my opinion, this is the jewell of this recording. It has been picked up, sung, and recorded by singers for five decades. Let’s see if I can demonstrate that with a little mash up of Hazel and some of the most compelling women’s voices on the current folk scene. Listen for these voices, in order: Hazel Dickens, Kathy Mattea, Abigail Wash burn, Rhiannon Giddens, and Aoife O’Donovan
The last line of Alice Gerard’s song for Hazel, You Gave Me A Song states, “Others held me for a while, but you held me all along.” The same could be said for this small collection of songs, sung and played powerfully by a woman from the city and a woman from the country released on a small but committed record label almost 50 years ago.
I don’t have enough time on this podcast to list all of the accomplishments of Cathy Fink. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she spent her early musical life in Canada, making music and touring with Duck Donald. Their passion for bluegrass and old timey music moved through North America like a traveling musical ministry. They learned hundreds and hundreds of old time songs and then enthusiastically played them for anyone who would listen. Cathy was and still is an outstanding guitar and banjo player mastering several styles. After the duo parted ways in in the late 70’s, Cathy moved to Washington DC and started playing concerts, festivals and winning music contests. She met her future musical partner and wife, Marcy Marxer in 1980. That partnership has blossomed into small folk music industry including Grammy Award winning children’s records, dozens of albums in a variety of styles, teaching camps, teaching videos, an independent record label and on and on. When I asked Cathy about influential albums, it didn’t take her long for her to settle on Hazel & Alice. I wondered if she remembered hearing Hazel and Alice sing together for the first time…
Well, I was in my twenties and at the time, I think, when I first heard Hazel and Alice on the first Folkways album that they did together. That was a pivotal album because it was a rare female led ,essentially bluegrass album at the time.
You know, David Grisman is on it, Lamar Greer was on it and I think it opened the door for a new generation of women to think about bluegrass as a genre for them. Then I was touring from Winnipeg. We all could not wait for the next Hazel and Alice album, and literally the second we could get our hands on one—and I don't honestly remember how I did that. It's more than possible, because I was living in Canada at the time, my former partner and I would tour in the U S and visit my mom in Baltimore and scour record stores because the stuff was so hard to get in Canada. And when you mail ordered it, You paid heavy taxes for importing. And so when we came to the U S we saved our record budget for every LP we could get our hands on that we thought we'd want to listen to. What I do really remember is we got our hands on the Hazel and Alice rounder album and immediately learned every single song.
And that was, you know, I was thinking about that this morning, Matt, that was part of the mode of the day. First of all, we were voracious when we heard an artist or a musical style that we loved, we just devoured and learned everything. So at the time my partner and I were learning every song by the Delmore brothers
Every song by the Louvin brothers
every song by the blue sky boys, all the brother duets, et cetera, et cetera.
You can hear the influence of the duet singing from that, you know, grand tradition of brother duets in what Hazel and Alice did, but also their voices were very, very different. So when you hear the blue sky boys or the Louvin brothers, you're hearing a family voice sound. When you heard Hazel and Alice, you had these two completely different voices.
Hazel's voice being a very poignant raw country singing, came from the church, came from the Hills, learned a lot of ballads, and Alice’s singing, I think had a totally different tambour. I think that they had to work hard at, ‘how do we find the combination of balance and blend?’ And they did find it, but I know that they had to work at it.
Hazel's was a very loud singer. How do you make this work? So, you know, I don't think they stood a chance of sounding like they came from the same family. And I don't think that was the point. I feel like what Hazel and Alice did was they made this wonderful transition from their love of traditional music to incorporating their own lyrics and the important things in their lives into that music.
Remember what 1973 was like: Ms. Magazine was big, the feminist movement, the women's movement, it wasn't the beginning of women's music, but it was sort of the beginning of a community of women that wanted to hold up women in music. You know, Don't Put Her Down is a perfect example of a song that changed lives.
Don't Put Her Down You Helped Put Her There was by Hazel, and here it is written in this classic country style, but saying something feminist important story told that really, you know, short of honky-tonk angels, hadn't been really touched in country music.
I think another big difference, of course, honky-tonk angels was an answer song, as opposed to Don't Put Her Down, You Help Put Her There. It's poignant storytelling and truth to power.
You know, I think one of the things about Hazel and Alice is, neither one of them had a vision of becoming a famous songwriter or wrote songs for the purpose of other people wanting to sing them and wanting to record them.
They wrote the songs that they wanted to write, and that's walking a few steps behind somebody like Ola, Belle, Reed. You know, several other people, but Custom-Made Woman Blues, you know, if you listen to it now, maybe it feels a little antiquated. Let's see. ’73, ’83 ’93 ’03 ’13, you know, it's almost 50 years old, but if you can put yourself in 1973 mind blowing—Great song that changed lives.
For me, I think that was part of the big burst. Oh, I can play old time music and bluegrass music and country music and say something real and important. That was, that was a turning point. And because I toured all over rural Canada at the time and lots of other places and, and places where Hazel and Alice, you know, nobody had heard of them. I mean, it's not like lots of people had heard of them in 1973. We'd get an album. We'd learn all the songs in two days, we'd practice like crazy. We'd go on the road and it's like, you all have to get this album by Hazel and Alice. Listen to this song. It almost turned us into musical ministers.
I asked Cathy to comment on Hazel’s amazing song Pretty Bird…
Well, the, the raw unpolished sound is the one that grabs my heart. Everybody else can record this, but nobody can sound like Hazel Dickens, which is fine. You know, she's influenced people to want to sing, sing these songs. Everybody has to do their own take on a song. Again, I think listening to this probably was the first time where I realized, ‘Oh, an unaccompanied song can be so poignant.’ This opened up another door about what you can say without accompaniment and yeah, it would, it brings tears to your eyes.
People who are our mentors, heroes, you know, musical, they're musical gods and goddesses to us. And then we become friends. And then we become co-conspirators or collaborators or whatever it may be. We're still working with Alice. In fact, she's about to do a new album, I’ve helped her organize it, Marcy’s going to play guitar on it, Alice comes and teaches at the Ola Belle Reed songwriting retreat that I run. We've done some great programs together about Ola Belle Reed. So when you think about the fact that I bought this album in 1973, and that this many years later, the impact is still here . I still want to write songs in this style that have meaning that make us bigger than ourselves.
We lost Hazel Dickens in April of 2011 at the age of 85. At the time of this taping, Alice Gerrard is a healthy 88 years old.