In 1965, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard released their first album, Who’s That Knocking?, on Smithsonian Folkways and changed the face of bluegrass music.
At the time, women sang in family groups, with their voices often supporting those of the men in their families. But with Hazel and Alice, for the first time, two unrelated women artists picked their own material. They sang the songs they had chosen as well as those they had written.
Although they recorded their second album, Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?, shortly after the first, various circumstances intervened and the album’s release was delayed until 1973. By the time it released, the duo had developed an international following. They had started writing and singing songs about social justice, women’s rights, and civil rights. They were touring with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, a civil rights-minded organization founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon of the SNCC Freedom Singers and Anne Romaine.
These first two Hazel and Alice albums were remastered and re-sequenced—without the track “Weary Lonesome Blues” from Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?—in the compilation Pioneering Women in Bluegrass in 1996.
Now, Who’s That Knocking? and Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?—which have been unavailable on vinyl for 40 years—have been remastered and reissued and is on all streaming services. In addition, Pioneering Women of Bluegrass: The Definitive Edition will be reissued to streaming services and on CD. The CD includes a never-before-heard track, “Childish Love,” written by the Louvin Brothers, as well as new liner notes by Laurie Lewis and Peter K. Siegel, the engineer on the duo’s 1960s recordings. There is an essay by Gerrard, one Dickens wrote for the 1996 edition, interviews Laurie Lewis and Peter Siegel did with artists who have been influenced by the duo, and new photos by photographers John Cohen and Carl Fleischhauer.
Gerrard grew up in a home filled with classical music in Seattle, Washington, and Dickens grew up in the heart of West Virginia coal country. She sang a cappella in her father’s Primitive Baptist Church and may have seemed at first like an unlikely pairing with Gerrard. After Gerrard entered Antioch College in the mid-1950s, she met Jeremy Foster, a musician who opened a new world of music for her by introducing her to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. She and Foster moved to Washington, D.C., and soon became involved in the folk revival in the area. It was Foster, along with Mike Seeger, who introduced the women.
When they released their first two albums, Hazel and Alice took bluegrass to new places. They infused the music with emotion, delivering songs about heartache and longing, ballads of steely-eyed courage and endurance.
These albums influenced several generations of women artists, including Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Claire Lynch, Melody Walker, and Molly Tuttle, among many others.
On these reissues, we can hear the ways that the duo developed their singular, influential style—Dickens taking the raw, high lonesome vocals while Gerrard floats under them with her mid-range harmonies. On songs like “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” (Who’s That Knocking?), the duo evokes the deep ache of lonesomeness simply through their vocal arrangement of the Bill Monroe song. Each of the albums is filled with such gems.
The songs on these albums sound as fresh, and just as heart-tugging, as when they were first released. These reissues allow us to hear once again the emotional power Hazel and Alice brought into bluegrass and the new directions in which they took it. For longtime fans, these albums bring the voices of old friends. For those new to Hazel and Alice’s music, these reissues are the best place to start, to discover their music’s beauty and resilience. Indeed, the bluegrass world would have poorer without the innovative musical genius of Hazel and Alice.
Pioneering Women of Bluegrass, the Definitive Edition: Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard is available HERE.