“I didn’t do anything!” Hazel Dickens protests. “I didn’t do anything to enhance it.”
The subject is the flurry of publicity that has surrounded the singer-songwriter over the past year. Dickens, 67, was named a 2001 Heritage Fellow in the folk and traditional arts by the National Endowment of the Arts right around the time O Brother, Where Art Thou? reached its pinnacle of popularity. Other accolades have followed, as well as appearances of Dickens tracks on many bluegrass and gospel compilations riding the O Brother bandwagon.
But Mimi Pickering, who directed Appalshop Films’ new Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song, is not new to Dickens. Pickering first met the artist while working on a 1988 profile of musician/labor supporter Sarah Ogan Gunning for Appalshop, a Whitesburg, Ky.-based nonprofit that supports and preserves Appalachian culture.
Born in Mercer County, W.Va., Dickens, like generations of Appalachian youth, left home as a teenager to go to the city. She lived and worked for almost two decades in the Hampden section of Baltimore, buying a guitar with one of her first paychecks and eventually penning such laborers’ laments as “Working Girl Blues” and “Black Lung.” Her style, a blend of country gospel and commercial hillbilly music, is showcased in Pickering’s documentary by excerpts from various concerts, ranging from a performance with Alice Gerrard at the Festival of the Smokies to labor rallies and workers’ rights benefits with Billy Bragg.
Although the film includes comments from those whom Dickens inspired, including Naomi Judd and Alison Krauss, the main voice heard throughout is Dickens’ own. “We [at Appalshop] don’t usually use a narrator—we prefer to let people tell their own story,” says Pickering. “I did think about interviewing a few other folks, but I wanted to let the songs play in full as much as I could, because they are Hazel’s story.”
Accordingly, It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song takes Dickens back to her old haunts in West Virginia and Baltimore. Getting the shy singer to speak about her experiences on camera was difficult, says Pickering: “I think she wanted to do it, but she’s so modest about her accomplishments.” But the director gained her subject’s trust well enough to film a family dinner in Princeton, W.Va., where Dickens and frequent musical partner Mike Seeger sang with one of Dickens’ brothers.
One place we don’t see much of in Pickering’s film is D.C., where Dickens has lived since 1969. “I never played around here very much,” she says. “There were more places to play out of town.”
Although she’s slowed down her music career in recent years so she can visit her relatives more often, Dickens seems unlikely ever to return to the mountains for good. “They work on me all the time to come back,” she says of her family. “I don’t really think that I could. I’ve gotten used to the city now and all that it has to offer.” —Pamela Murray Winters
Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 639-1828.