by Ron Thomason
Oh, how I wish Hazel could have heard it. There were performers of every stripe, from the most primitive of old-time singers and players to those “steeped in tradition” to those who are so famous that it seems impossible that they would know her music, giving her songs “a go.” You could tell from the strength of the sundry renditions that not only had her music moved so many very deeply, but that the woman herself had had quite an impact on more than she could have ever known. A few even fumbled their deliveries, but that was all the more moving from the sincerity of their attempts. And it was never apparent whether it was unfamiliarity with the genre or powerful emotions welling up from their memories of Hazel that put a bump or two in the road. What was clear beyond doubt was that those who had known her, had seen her, had listened to her at Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass on the big stage, late, on a decade of Saturday afternoons embraced the well-deserved tribute that was the focus of the massive festival, and participated without reservation.
Yes, I would have loved for her hear it, but it would have embarrassed her. Oh, she would have been proud. But it would have been that nearly youthful, self-conscious type of pride so indicative of the Appalachian. In the end I believe she would have shrunk from the attention and tried to revel as just an “on-looker” in the celebration. She had the most strength I’ve ever seen combined with so much humility.
The tribute itself was done so well and in such a big way that it would have made the vainest person self-conscious. Upon entering Golden Gate Park from the upper Haight area, the first thing that any of the three-quarters of a million attendees passed was the Porch Stage. It is the smallest of all the stages at HSB, and it has the flavor of intimacy—set on a small rise beneath towering shade trees, it has been the setting for many old-time musical performances by lesser known artists. And lest none of those artists which performed there this past year forget, the backstage area had little mementoes, pictures and reminders that this festival was dedicated to Hazel Dickens. (In fact, the “hospitality areas” of all six stages were thusly appointed.)
Proceeding on, one encountered the Hazel Dickens Kiosk. The Kiosk itself was manned, and it was possible to secure “Hazel Dickens memorabilia” from the attendants in the form of posters and pictures. One could choose from the pictures that encircled the top and sides of the kiosk; pictures which unfolded the story of many signal events in her very significant life from childhood through her prime creative and performing years right up to her last performance at HSB. (Many of the pictures had been provided to HSB by Hazel’s dear friend and long-time associate and record producer, Ken Irwin.)
Just outside the “Hazel Kiosk” was an old-time, hand-operated coin mint. The “machinist” had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of pennies with which he was producing “Hazel Dickens coins.” Many thousands took one of these freshly minted coins, and every single “cent” seemed to generate a smile.
A couple of hundred yards inside the entrance was the massive Banjo Stage, the “main” stage at HSB, and the one where traditionally Hazel had closed the Saturday shows for a decade. In those years she had followed the likes of Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Doc Watson, Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder and many, many more of the top performers of bluegrass music. It is said that the audience area at that stage crowds as many as 100,000 folks together at one time, and Hazel’s performances always had that sea of folks on their feet with emotion.
The performers’ area of the Banjo stage is the size of a couple of football fields and houses not only the individual kiosks reserved for each performing group that plays on the stage, but also the massive “circus-size” catering tent where all the performers eat. At one end of that tent is a comfortable sitting area furnished with plush couches and chairs, and behind those is a “Wall of Pictures” of previous HSB festivals. This year’s wall was clearly dedicated to Hazel, though not exclusively so. That would have changed the tradition. But her image in pictures with so many that she had influenced and who counted her as their friend was clearly a theme running through the photos. It would be impossible to list all the names of those who had their pictures made with her, but they ran to the likes of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch and, of course, Warren Hellman, the producer and patron of HSB.
Warren himself “opened” two of the stages with a moving tribute to Hazel by performing her song “Mannington Mine.” He recounted that it was the gift of a Hazel Dickens CD that inspired him to start (and continue) HSB. He pointed out that “the music moved him so that he felt he had to share it with as many as he could.” The result was the first “Strictly” Bluegrass Festival which starred Hazel and Emmylou Harris, along with a host of bluegrass luminaries.
The tribute to Hazel, like HSB itself, grew out of what might seem to be one of the most unlikely friendships imaginable. But Warren and Hazel really liked and respected each other. They shared an honesty and dedication to their work and their heritage that is rare. Warren has never forgotten or forsaken the responsibilities which were established by his progenitors who started businesses that provided the capital and planning for the development of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, along with building signature American companies whose brands are part of the language. His work in helping deserving enterprises to prosper and his boundless philanthropic endeavors are indicative of how seriously he takes these responsibilities. And Hazel never forgot, nor forsook her heritage. She wrote and sang of the hard times of Appalachian folk, miners, disenfranchised women and men, and the trials of their daily lives. She lived a life that proved you can “pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there.” She went where she was needed, where she was called.
Warren hosts a Saturday night dinner party for performers only, every year. At this year’s party Hazel’s spirit was well-represented by the HSB stars who played and sang her songs. Hazel herself never missed one of the celebrations, and she always sang a song or two. By 2010 she was feeling pretty weak, and I noticed her sitting by herself. In previous years I had asked her to sing with me, and she had. But that year she suggested we sing a song, and we did. As usual she out-sang everyone who got up to perform. And everyone knew it, and they rose and gave her the ovation she deserved. But after that song she was exhausted and fragile, and I noticed that Mr. Hellman had brought her to his table where he could make sure that she was “taken care of.” That, too, was a tribute to all that she had done.
(Photo by Jay Blakesberg)