“I haven’t done one since the ’60s–I thought they had gone out of style,” Hazel Dickens laughs. “But I guess they’re like bell bottoms–if you hold on to them long enough, they come back.”
“Keep your old clothes,” adds Alice Gerrard. “That’s the moral of that story.”
The subject is house concerts, and the fact that the performers, Hazel and Alice, haven’t done one together in a couple of decades makes their appearance “in a living room in Durham” a special treat for the 75 friends and fans quick enough to snap up tickets. The March 23rd show, featuring Carrboro’s John Worthington on guitar and mandolin, and Saxapahaw’s Brad Leftwich on fiddle–along with West Virginia singer and banjoist Murphy Henry–sold out immediately.
It’s not that Hazel and Alice haven’t been performing–they did a three-week tour of the West Coast about three years ago, made a 1998 appearance at the Calgary Folk Festival, frequently perform with others, and are often covered by contemporary singers. But the intimate glimpse of these longtime friends and groundbreaking female proponents of bluegrass, old time and country music is, as people with bell bottoms used to say, a real happening.
The daughter of trained classical musicians, Gerrard developed a liking for folk music while a student at Antioch College in Ohio in the 1950s. Dickens grew up in a West Virginia family that loved, and played, country music. Her father picked old time banjo and, with the arrival of Bill Monroe, took an avid interest in bluegrass. When part of her family moved to Baltimore, Mike Seeger, an old time music enthusiast and later member of The New Lost City Ramblers, struck up a friendship with Dickens and encouraged her to perform professionally. Her career began in 1954, when she, along with her brother, Arnold, and Seeger became members of Bobby Baker’s Pike County Boys.
When Antioch College sent Alice to Washington on a cooperative job in 1955, she arrived to find a thriving folk, bluegrass and old time music scene. She met Hazel through Seeger and the two became fast friends, appearing for the first time as “Hazel and Alice” at the Galax Fiddler’s Convention in 1962. That they were able to take bluegrass, a form of music performed almost exclusively by men, and bring to it a deeply personal style and sound, was a historic achievement. They toured in the ’60s and ’70s with the Southern Folk Festival (later called the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project), which presented young “folkniks” along with the traditional players they emulated–both black and white–to audiences across the South.
The duo also brought a social consciousness and strong feminist slant to their music, writing and performing hard-hitting satires of sexism against women in songs like “Custom-Made Woman Blues” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There.” Hazel remains an active supporter, songwriter and fundraiser for coal miners’ unions. Four of her songs are heard in the Academy Award-winning movie Harlan County, U.S.A., and she appeared in John Sayle’s Matewan, a film about the massacre of striking coal miners in 1920.
Hazel and Alice recorded four albums still available on CD; the first, Who’s That Knocking, released in 1965, was recorded for $75 at the First Unitarian Church in Washington. The second, Won’t You Come and Sing?, was recorded the same year, but not released until 1973 (these have been combined and re-released on Smithsonian Folkways’ Pioneering Women of Bluegrass Music). Two Rounder albums followed: Hazel and Alice (1973) and Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (1976). The women parted company soon after, pursuing different musical goals but remaining friends.
Today, Gerrard–who was once married to Mike Seeger–lives in Durham, where she edits The Old Time Herald (www.mindspring.com/~oth/), the music magazine she founded in 1987 while living in Galax. Dickens resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Both remain active performers.
Dickens expects the house concert to have flavor distinct from larger events. “When you do a major concert, things really have to flow, and you have to do a different variety of songs,” she says. “But this kind of setting lends itself to doing a lot of things you would not normally do on stage. It’s like sitting around the living room, playing with a bunch of friends, and sharing more revealing moments about yourself. I hope we’ve picked out a few of those.” That same intimacy, Dickens admits, is also somewhat daunting–although the in-your-face nature of the event seems less of an issue for Gerrard.
“I said, ‘Look, we’ll bill it as an informal evening,’” Alice recalls. “‘It’s going to be IN-FORMAL. We’ll SIDDOWN. People can talk, they can ask us questions. We’ll just talk and sing.’” For Gerrard, one of the main benefits is technical. “To me, not having to mess with a sound system is a joy,” she says, expecting the players to “mix” themselves in customary acoustic fashion.
More of a challenge was working up the songs themselves, which the pair did two weeks ago at Hazel’s home. Asked how much of the material would be songs the pair hadn’t performed in a long time, Gerrard admits, “Well, pretty much everything.”
“We had forgotten how hard we worked on those songs back then,” Dickens says. “With some of them, it was like falling off a log, like we never stopped singing them–it’s amazing how we fell back into singing like we used to. But there were others that were much more complicated, that we had to listen to again.”
“I’ve done them in slightly different arrangements with other people I play with, and I’m sure Hazel has too,” Gerrard says, “but we haven’t done them together for several years.” The worst situation, she admits, is when you forget a line from a song you wrote. “I said, ‘Okay, Hazel, I’ll print out all the words in big type, and we’ll just bring them, and if we, have to look at them, we’ll look at them.’ That’s why it’s an informal concert.”
Gerrard expects that most of the songs will come from their two Rounder recordings from the ’70s. “The two of us, with a couple of guitars,” she says. “And beyond that, we’ll keep the backup simple.”
That simple, heartfelt sound of traditional music is making a comeback with a new generation thanks in large part, Gerrard suggests, to CD re-releases of recordings like The Harry Smith Anthology and the Roscoe Holcomb collection on Smithsonian Folkways, along with the Dock Boggs collection on Revenant. “I have a sense that there are more and more people, younger people like college kids, getting interested in old time music,” she says. She also credits college radio with playing an eclectic mix of music.
“They don’t necessarily call it old time music, or bluegrass music, or alternative rock, they just play it,” she says. “They’ll play the Carter Family, then the Smashing Pumpkins, then Roscoe Holcomb. I think it’s really sparked a lot of interest on the part of younger people.” She also applauds “The Carolina Roots Series” of concerts at Greensboro’s Guilford College for providing a large–and frequently full–venue for traditional music.
Dickens agrees. “Every now and then you’ll notice the music will go a certain way for a while, and then it’ll take a turn, and go back towards tradition–which I think is great. Because one of the fears, especially in bluegrass, is that they’re not attracting enough young people,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve done anything in these last few years where there were not a certain number of young people there, especially young women–they either want encouragement for their songwriting, or they’re thinking about getting into the business.”
Dickens and Gerrard have influenced such far-ranging performers as Exene Cervenka, The Judds, Emmylou Harris, Laurie Lewis, Mollie O’Brien and The New Riders of the Purple Sage. Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories” was covered by Dolly Parton on her aptly-titled, bluegrass-inspired release, The Grass is Blue. There’s talk about well-known performers assembling to do an album of Hazel Dickens’ covers (along the lines of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Country collection). She also counts performers like Son Volt and Rage Against the Machine as fans.
“They listen to my music,” Dickens says. “And I know that there is this huge following out there, because I’ve gotten a couple of jobs that really surprised me.” One was at a country venue in Pittsburgh, Penn. “They paid me, as well as I’ve ever been paid, to do one set, and I was treated like the grand matriarch of the evening. There were all of these young performers, with cowboy boots and cowboy hats, doing country-western music–the oldies,” she stresses, “not the new stuff.”
You won’t find that “new stuff” at the top of Gerrard’s list, either.
“I’m really not into the current country pop,” she says. “I still really like to listen to Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Merle Haggard.” She’s bored with the homogenized pop sound of mainstream country singers: “I remember when you could flip the radio dial and immediately tell that this is a country station, and you can’t do that any more.” In fact, the two biggest country stations in the Triangle, WKIX and WQDR, are owned by the same corporate parent company.
Commercial interests, Dickens suggests, take the heart and soul out of the music–but not for long. “I think they wear people out,” she says. “They try to feed them all this stuff that has no guts to it, that has no real feeling. After a while, people just reject it. It’s sort of like the political realm–people get fed up, and they have to take over. It happened when Randy Travis caught on a few years ago, and started bringing in all of these great songs. It happened when Elvis came in.”
Gerrard stays on top of music through her role as The Old Time Herald editor, checking out new releases sent for review, as well as listening to recordings in her car while driving to yearly music festivals in locales that include Penland, Mars Hill, Mt. Airy and Galax. Dickens, meanwhile, listens to “whatever is on the radio,” counting among her favorites Longview, Blue Highway, Vince Gill (who pays homage to traditional music on his album, The Key) and Rhonda Vincent.
“She’s one I like a lot these days,” Dickens says, “because she just went totally to bluegrass, and she’s trying to get as much edge as she can–which is unusual for women. That was my big complaint with women, that they never got gutsy enough. You know, if they did bluegrass, they would pick the sweeter songs. But she’s continually pushing for more edge.”
Clearly, the same could be said of Dickens and Gerrard. That they are very much in the game after 40 years, making the festival rounds, performing and influencing new generations of players, testifies to an edge of their own, as well as a kind of trust: trust in the music, trust in the people, and trust in each other.
The Herald Angels, a trio consisting of Gerrard, Kay Justice and Gail Gillespie will perform at Guilford College on March 25 as part of the Carolina Roots Series. For more information, call (336) 316-2400.