Last week, Hazel Dickens, who dedicated her life to using song to give voice to the voiceless, died at the age of 75. Dickens’ voice was wholly her own, bearing all the traces of her hardscrabble mountain upbringing, and her passing is a great loss to American culture as well as the movement to expand to create full and equal opportunity.
One of the first women to attain commercial recognition in country music, Dickens was an artful storyteller and came to be considered the social conscience of the bluegrass movement for her aching portraits of working people and women who had been wronged. Perhaps best known for her inclusion on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning documentary about Kentucky coal strikes, “Harlan County, USA,” Dickens played an important role in bringing national attention to the dangerous working conditions and meager pay in Appalachian coal mines.
Dickens will be survived by her songs and influence, and a tribute album is in the works featuring stars including Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. She is a powerful example of the impact that arts and culture can have in making social issues deeply personal.