Independence day listening: Smithsonian Folkways (and in DC, a live festival)


Hazel Dickens (center) performing in West Virginia. Photographed by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who founded the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The Smithsonian Folklife festival is under way here in Washington, DC, and will continue through the weekend. Well worth experiencing, and I plan to do so myself.

If you can't get to the nation's capital, however, Independence Day is a great excuse to dig into the archives of Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, which is the national museum of the United States. Their published collection includes a wide variety of folk music from around the world, but July 4 seems like a fine day to dig into their Americana archives.

Right now, I'm listening to various Appalachian records, and specifically to the late West Virginia folk music icon Hazel Dickens' "Black Lung," from "Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian Folkways" (someone has ripped a copy to archive.org, too).

Here's an MP3.

"Black Lung" was the first "political" folk song Dickens performed. She wrote it for her elder brother, who died of the disease, and she was unsure how it would be received:

"And I looked up and there was Merle Travis and Mother Maybelle [Carter] and I was scared to death...It was from the gut. It was watching my oldest brother and two brothers-in-law die, it hadn't been too long. And after that I had two other brothers that died with lung disease that worked in the mines."

Here's an Amazon link to the Smithsonian Folkways collection; you can buy downloads or discs from the Smithsonian website, too.

Video, above: an excerpt from the documentary film "Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song."

From the coalfields of West Virginia to the factories of Baltimore, Hazel Dickens has lived the songs she sings. A pioneering woman in Bluegrass and hardcore country music, Hazel has influenced generations of songwriters and musicians. Her songs of hard work, hard times, and hardy souls have bolstered working people at picket lines and union rallies throughout the land. Her piercing vocals power the soundtracks for Harlan County USA and Matewan. The Washington Post described her as "a living legend of American music, a national treasure," and in 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a National Heritage Fellowship. In this intimate portrait, interviews with Hazel and fellow musicians such as Alison Krauss, Naomi Judd, and Dudley Connell are interwoven with archival footage, recent performances, and 16 powerful songs including “Mama’s Hand,” “ Working Girl Blues,” and “Black Lung.”

Hard To Tell The Singer From The Song profiles a "modern" woman dealing with contemporary issues from a feminist perspective which has evolved from her own experiences, being Appalachian, being displaced physically and culturally, being poor and working class, being a woman artist in a man's world, and being a bearer of tradition.

A related classic movie referenced in the Hazel Dickens film, also about coal miners' struggles in West Virginia: "Harlan County, USA." (1976). You can watch it in full for free on Hulu. And while it lasts, here's a copy on YouTube. It's one of my favorite films of all time, and really the gold standard of what a documentary film can be.

Required viewing for anyone who wants to understand the bittersweet beauty of Appalachian culture, and the darker side of those folksy mountain melodies in the Smithsonian collections.

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