Songwriter and performer Hazel Dickens is among the most respected and celebrated folk or country music artists to come from West Virginia. She has recorded 11 albums, contributed to the soundtracks of nine feature films or videos – including such popular releases as Matewan and Songcatcher – and seen her songs recorded by artists such as Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Hot Rize, and others. Among the many honors and awards she has received is the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, presented to her by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001.
Born in 1935 near Montcalm, Mercer County, Hazel was among 11 children born to Hilary Nathan Dickens and Sarah Aldora Simpkins Dickens. The pair were originally from Floyd and Carroll counties in Virginia and migrated to southern West Virginia in search of work. Through injury, a declining economy, and personal hardship, however, times grew tough for the family. Hazel eventually left, as did the majority of her siblings and her parents.
Using her songs and her undeniable mountain singing, Hazel became a forceful voice in labor and political movements and an articulate spokesperson for mining and women’s issues. Songs such as “Black Lung,” “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” “Coal Mining Woman,” and “Mannington Mining Disaster” focused widespread attention on West Virginia’s economic and social concerns, while “A Few Old Memories,” “Mama’s Hand,” and “Working Girl Blues” gained her a national audience and recalled her Mercer County upbringing.
Curiously, all of these songs were written after Hazel left West Virginia for Baltimore, and later, Washington, D.C. Driven to the city by economic necessity, Hazel never abandoned her mountain roots. This strong attachment finds expression in many of her songs, but none more so than her anthem, “West Virginia, My Home.” Recorded and performed by numerous artists over the years, it is considered an unofficial “state song” in some corners. It is also a theme song for Hazel, who sings it – passionately – every time she appears in public.
I had the opportunity to visit with Hazel Dickens at her home in Washington, D.C., in June 2003, where we discussed this song and her beloved West Virginia home. –ed.
John Lilly. Were all 11 of those children at home at one time?
Hazel Dickens. I doubt at one time, because they married young. My oldest sister married at 15, and my oldest brother married at probably 17, 18, 19 – married very young. Of course, they quit school at a young age. One sister married at 16, and one sister married about 19. Some of the boys married later.
JL. Did you appreciate this home when you were young, or could you not wait to get out of there? Do you remember what your thoughts were?
HD. Well, in the beginning, I don’t think we were thinking of getting out of there, you know. I don’t think we knew what “getting out of there” meant. I don’t think we had anything to compare it to. Of course, there was no television or anything like that and, most of the time, not even a radio. It depended on what was happening there or what my father got into, you know, to work at. At one time, he was hauling timber for the mines. In the prime years, he was doing pretty good. But the more broke-down that he got where he couldn’t do that heavy lifting and stuff, things started to go downhill with all the last children that come along.
The first children didn’t have it all that bad. There was generally stock around, you know. I mean livestock, and a garden. A lot of the times, we lived out in the country. And if we didn’t, we would live right outside of town. We never lived right in the coal camp because [my father] was not a coal miner. And the coal miners got the houses, the company houses. But once that period was over, he started to go downhill, getting whatever work that he could, ‘cause he couldn’t deal with that timber anymore. He couldn’t lift.
JL. He was injured?
HD. He had a double rupture, and he would not have it operated on. And so he began doing things like hauling coal for people and moving people. He had the boys, you know, the young strapping boys that were like over six-feet tall, so he could always take a couple of them with him. And I imagine, too, it wasn’t just a matter of not being able to lift. I imagine it was when the mines around there closed down, you know. I don’t know if he was that enterprising, or not, to just keep going for months and months. I imagine he did for a while, but then after that, he would do whatever he could to make a living. I imagine he was moving people or hauling coal to houses, or later on, he became a tenant farmer.
JL. Would he move the family around a lot during that time?
HD. Yes. Yeah, we always moved around a lot. And, gosh, I mean I can remember – how many places we moved? There were so many. One, two, three, four, five, six – I can remember six right off the top of my head without even hardly thinking.
JL. So, tell me about leaving there. Do you remember the day you left?
HD. Uh, I remember. I remember kind of, not really. I wanted to go ‘cause I wanted to get a job. But I was trying to gather what my feelings were like when I was thinking about the actual walking out the door.
JL. So this must have built up. You were getting to an age where you felt like you needed to find work.
HD. We were poor as church mice. Pa was poor.
JL. You were about 15 or 16?
HD. I was just turning 16 and was not old enough to get a job. You had to have work papers in order to get a job, and I couldn’t get them until I was 17. I guess I kind of would do babysitting or anything I could do just to get by. When I first went to Baltimore, my sister had a young kid. He was two years old. So I could stay there until I got 17 and keep him.
JL. Tell me more about when you actually left. Did you get on a train? Did you take a car?
HD. Well, I had some relatives that came back and forth. One time after that, I got on a Greyhound. But by that time, it was relatives that drove me away. My brother would come back at times, and my sister would come back at times. She was always trying to get me to leave. I could remember many times coming back and forth with my brother and visiting after I left, so I know he had a car. And my sister, she bought a new car. She got a job in the factory, so she was coming back. So, it was always people coming or going from Baltimore. …They wouldn’t let me go there at first. But, when [my sister] finally got through to them, my father finally consented to let me go.
I guess I expected a lot of things to be different, you know. But there were just plain old apartments, old row houses, you know. It was not any grand thing. I don’t know what I thought. I was just thinking, you know, go and make a lot of money, and buy all these nice clothes, and everything. When you got finished working, there was not that much left.
JL. Do you recall thinking that you’d make some money and go back home with it, or did you think that you’d stay there once you left?
HD. No, no. I think I was just thinking of going to visit. But I don’t know if I really thought about it at that point. I don’t know if I got that far. Because, see, by that time, we had gotten so destitute that it was either I do that, or we had nothing. Because at that point, my father couldn’t work anymore. He was sort of dependent on whoever came. My brother-in-law would board there sometimes. I don’t know where he slept. We had such little room, you know. But he worked in the mines just up the road, so he could stay there and walk back and forth. [My father] worked a little bit for my uncle, who was in the holler behind us, at a sawmill, and got a little bit of money there, but he didn’t have much coming in.
I can remember not having a coat one winter and having to stay in the house. It was stuff like that. I had to quit school ‘cause I didn’t have clothes to wear. So it was a matter of staying there with nothing or going to get a job and having, you know, having clothes to wear, get a guitar, buy my guitar – which I did – and all that stuff, you know. I would not have had anything if I had stayed there. Most of the time, we didn’t have enough to really eat. We had bare minimum, as far as food is concerned.
JL. Were you homesick when you got to Baltimore?
HD. I think so, yeah. I think I was. I think it was so different that I had a pretty hard time adjusting and just trying to figure everything out. I was terribly shy and very, very unsocialized. I don’t think there was anybody that I could think of that was as unprepared as I was to go to a big city, you know. I know people say that a lot of times, but we were kept at home. We weren’t allowed to get out. Even at school, when I was in school, they wouldn’t allow me to go to a lot of picnics or stuff like that. I might have went to one or two the whole time I was at school. They were very strict on us.
JL. Did you live with relatives when you first arrived in Baltimore?
HD. Oh yeah, with my older sister, with her husband and her little boy, who I babysat until I got a job. I did her work, did some of her housework, and cooked for them, cooked supper for them. But no, I wouldn’t have gone if it had been me to go on my own. I would have been much too inhibited, much too shy to do that. I wouldn’t have known what to do, ‘cause I did not have that expertise, like people learned later on when they went to school, you know. They learned certain social skills, but we didn’t. We didn’t see anybody else.
JL. So this would have been about 1951 or ‘52?
HD. Almost up to ‘54. When I had met Mike [Seeger] about ’54, I had just gotten a job, and I didn’t know anybody. The person that he introduced us to was the first couple [of] city people that I was around.
JL. So, you were there for a couple of years before you really even met anybody other than your family.
HD. It was sort of like a hillbilly ghetto, you know. We didn’t know anybody outside of the people that came from back there [in the mountains]. And they moved up there [to Baltimore] like we did. That’s about it.
JL. So, when do you remember first beginning work on a song about West Virginia being your home? You want to talk a little bit about how those first words came down?
HD. Well, I think it was a long time, yeah.
JL. It was years afterwards.
HD. Yeah, yeah, and I don’t even know the beginning. I’m trying to think when the beginning of it was. The idea probably originated there in Baltimore, ‘cause I didn’t write it until I was here [in Washington, D.C.].
JL. When did you move to D.C.?
HD. ‘69, beginning of ‘70, ‘cause I moved in the spring up here. But, I didn’t write it all at one time. It just kind of sat there. The chorus came actually pretty quick, yeah. But the rest of it didn’t for a while. It just kind of sat there in my book. I was thumbing through one time, and somebody saw the words and said, “You better finish this. It looks like a good song.” At the time, I didn’t want to dwell on it too much, ‘cause I didn’t know where to take it. I guess I didn’t want to deal with those feelings.
The first verse, I think, came about by the differences between people, you know, the people that you met, which is different than us. People looked down upon us as hillbillies, you know. They just did (laughter). No matter what you did or how much you tried to clean up your act or be like city people, they still looked upon you as hillbillies, and that always bothered me. We were so used to our bunch. I couldn’t see what was wrong with us (laughter). I think it began out of some of those feelings, the differences.
The second verse came because I became disillusioned with some friends. I didn’t feel like they were as loyal as the people I had known back home. I realized later, much later, what some of the differences were, [that] they were not able to express themselves like the people I grew up with. They weren’t Southern. A lot of people don’t know what you are talking about when you say that, but there really is a difference. A lot of Southern people are very expressive. They’re very emotional, about even friends. It don’t even have to be relatives, you know. They could express how they felt, where a lot of Northern people didn’t. They were a little bit cool or laid back or unemotional about how they expressed themselves, or how they showed their feelings, or how they felt about the friendship, whatever they felt for you. They didn’t know that, but it came across to a Southern person who had been used to a lot of closeness, neighborliness, [and] comradery in other people you grew up with. Somebody was always coming over, or you were always helping them, or they were helping you, or whatever.
It’s like I used to say, you could grow up in the city right next to somebody, and you could die or they could die, and they’d never know it. Somebody would tell you so-and-so passed, and you wouldn’t know it. [If] you had a relative lived close by or something like that as your neighbor, or somebody that grew up where you did, then they would always be over there. You could always tell the difference. I know the second verse was because I was disillusioned. I didn’t feel that same comradery that I did back home.
For people who did not have that outlet, or other friends or other places to go or things to do, you could get very lonely. You go out and sit on your steps – the stoop, as they call it – everybody going somewhere, you know, up and down the street, and you were just sitting there. You had nowhere to go. You would sit there wondering where they were going, what’s going on, ‘cause you didn’t know that many people.
Usually if somebody moved up [from West Virginia], if they asked you about an apartment for them, you would try to get them an apartment near where you were, you know. Or if you knew them, you’d try and get an apartment where they lived, so you would have somebody that you could go visit or come visit you, or go eat with them, or they’d come eat with you.
I can remember the one building that we lived in, these people, they moved in. They were from the same place that we were from, or at least from West Virginia, you know. And we’d get up and have breakfast together. We’d go to their apartment, and they’d come to our apartment. We were just tickled to death that they were there (laughter). We just couldn’t believe it, you know, that it was almost like a family. When you’d go out, you went out together. You didn’t go down the street and say, “I’m so-and-so. Would you like to come over tonight?” We just didn’t do that. You stayed with your own kind (laughter).
Hazel completed the song “West Virginia, My Home” in about 1972 and first recorded it on an album titled Hazel & Alice, with singer Alice Gerrard (Rounder 0027), released in 1973. Hazel re-recorded the song in 1980, with her own band and with a slower tempo and a more emotive feeling. This version was included on an album titled Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People (Rounder 0126). Following this release, Hazel began performing the song regularly in public, to enthusiastic audiences.
JL. The people in West Virginia really love that song.
HD. You know, there’s a lot of feeling went into that song. No matter where I go or where I live, I have always identified with West Virginia as my home, no matter what. And some people used to kind of look askance at me at for saying [that]. When anybody asked me, without a minute’s hesitation, I have always been like that. And they said, “But you don’t live there, and you haven’t lived there.” I said, “Well, what does that matter?” I said, “You identify with where you are from, wherever it is.” And I said, “That’s the place I always identified as being from, and that’s it” (laughter). I said, “I don’t apologize for it.” I said, “That’s where my home base was.”
JL. And still is, I gather.
HD. And still is.
John Lilly is a musician/songwriter in Charleston, West Virginia. He has served as editor of Goldenseal, the state’s quarterly folklife journal, since 1997. This article first appeared in Goldenseal magazine and is used by permission, all rights reserved. www.johnlillymusic.com and www.wvculture.org/goldenseal