Celebrating the Legacy & Cultural Impact of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard with Reissue Campaign
Duo’s First Two Albums Who's That Knocking? and Won't You Come and Sing For Me? coming to Vinyl + Streaming on 10/21. Pioneering Women of Bluegrass: The Definitive Edition also out 10/21 on streaming + CD
The music that Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard recorded together beginning in 1965 has influenced generations of musicians across genres, primarily women, from Emmylou Harris and the Judds up through Kathleen Hanna, Alison Krauss and Rhiannon Giddens. "The harmony was so bold," Naomi Judd told the Washington Post years ago. "They were unabashedly just who they were -- it was really like looking in the mirror of truth. We felt like we knew them, and when we listened to the songs, it crystallized the possibility that two women could sing together.” Bluegrass icon Claire Lynch says that “Hazel and Alice were the first ‘voices’ I heard in bluegrass music that sang on women’s behalf” and young guitar-slinging singer/songwriter Molly Tuttle says, “I first heard Hazel and Alice when I was 12 years old, and their music changed my life.”
Their influence will continue to reverberate when, on October 21, Smithsonian Folkways releases newly remastered editions of their first two albums Who's That Knocking? and Won't You Come and Sing for Me? which have been unavailable on vinyl for over 40 years. The original song sequences of these two albums will also be available on streaming services and as downloads for the first time ever. These LP resissues are also available as a bundle by clicking on either of the links above.
On the same day, Folkways will also be releasing (via streaming and CD) Pioneering Women of Bluegrass: The Definitive Edition, which for the first time collects every track recorded by Dickens and Gerrard for Folkways, as well as a previously unheard bonus track. The new CD features comprehensive track-by-track notes and an expanded essay by Gerrard herself, still going strong at age 88, as well as an essay by Dickens, who passed away in 2011. New liner notes by Laurie Lewis and Peter K. Siegel and new pictures by celebrated photographers John Cohen and Carl Fleischhauer complete the 32-page CD booklet.
More information and pre-order on Who’s That Knocking?
More information and pre-order for Won’t You Come and Sing For Me?
More information and pre-order for Pioneer Women of Bluegrass: The Definitive Edition
Peter K. Siegel, who engineered and recorded all the original songs in the 1960s, remastered the CD, which also includes a never-heard track, “Childish Love” originally sung by the Louvin Brothers. The track is available to stream today. This track was recorded in the 1960s but kept in the vaults due to then-insurmountable technical difficulties. “When those albums first came out, I was disappointed with the quality of the sound,” Siegel writes in the liner notes. “I think the new masters better capture the essence of Hazel and Alice’s music, and sound more like the traditional bluegrass style that these performances represent.”
These reissues come during a time of renewed interest in Gerrard’s music and history. She released a Grammy-nominated late-period career highlight Follow The Music, which was recorded with Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor, in 2014. She has continued to perform, most recently singing songs of resistance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall on the day the recent controversial Dobbs opinion on abortion was handed down.
In an era where the role of women in many genres and artforms is being reevaluated and highlighted anew, these iconic recordings tell the story of two women whose inventiveness, conviction, and grit allowed them access to stages, audiences, and a legacy previously only afforded to men. After Hazel and Alice entered the picture, bluegrass would never be the same.
Dickens and Gerrard both grew up in musical families: Dickens, in West Virginia, learned the raw, unaccompanied singing style of coal country, while Gerrard, in Seattle, became immersed in the classical music of her college-educated parents. Despite their different musical backgrounds, they were both drawn to the flourishing house picking-party scene in the Baltimore-Washington area, where many of its urban movers and shakers sought out the authentic, traditional music of Appalachian migrants. They first met within that scene in their 20s, but at the time, the few women playing bluegrass music tended to appear primarily as part of family acts. For Dickens and Gerrard, it would take the better part of a decade for their playing to appear on a record.
“Sometime in 1964, Peter Siegel and David Grisman heard Hazel and me singing at a party in D.C. and suggested we record,” Gerrard recalls of the debut’s genesis. “Sure, if we could do the songs the way we wanted to do them. They agreed.” On a $75 budget and with a single microphone, Siegel engineered the session in Pierce Hall, well known for its grand acoustics, inside DC’s progressive All Souls Unitarian Church. Dickens (singing and string bass) and Gerrard (singing and guitar) showed up experienced, well prepared, and backed by an all-star lineup comprised of mandolinist Grisman, Lamar Grier on banjo, and the legendary Chubby Wise of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys on the fiddle.
The project could have been derailed by the death of Gerrard’s husband Jeremy Foster in a car crash just before recording began, but Gerrard persevered. In 1965, Dickens and Gerrard released an album of hard-driving, traditional bluegrass, Who’s That Knocking?, for Moe Asch’s Folkways Records. “I think this is one of the all-time historic records,” Dickens wrote in a 1996 essay. “To my knowledge, it was the first time that two women sat down and picked out a bunch of songs and had guts enough to stand behind what they picked out and say, ‘We’re not changing anything; you have to do it or else.’”
Dickens and Gerrard recorded their second album, Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?, for Folkways not long after the first, though it sat on the shelf until 1973. Siegel engineered and produced again, this time at Mastertone studio in New York City. The accompanying musicians remained almost the same, but with Billy Baker playing the fiddle instead of Chubby Wise, and Mike Seeger and Fred Weisz contributing to a couple of songs.
By the time Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? came out in 1973, Dickens and Gerrard were entering a new era. They had been touring with the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project, a civil rights–minded organization that promoted interracial cultural exchange in the post–Jim Crow South. These tours politicized Dickens and Gerrard and inspired them to write more of their own songs drawing from injustices they themselves experienced and encountered. Stepping up with impassioned tales of gendered-based double standards, Dickens and Gerrard became unintentional musical spokeswomen for many women’s libbers who connected with their poetic testimonies to the frustrations of living “in a world made by men.”
Though the influential musical couple went their separate ways in 1976, Dickens and Gerrard led accomplished individual music careers and reunited for occasional appearances. Before her passing in 2011, Dickens went on to become a key voice for coal miners’ rights with songs featured in the Academy Award–winning documentary Harlan County, USA and in the labor strike dramatization Matewan. In 2001, she received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for her revitalization and reinvention of traditional Appalachian music.
Still active to this day, Gerrard became a critical documentarian of old-time music as the founding editor of The Old Time Herald and through the donation of her extensive archives to the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC. Gerrard earned a Grammy nomination for her 2014 album Follow the Music and has continued to play music in various lineups.
Indeed, Dickens and Gerrard, inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2017, leave a long legacy of fearless expression that broke down the barriers of the good ol’ boy network in the bluegrass community they helped redefine. “We have had women come up to us all through the years and talk about the first records we made and what an impact it had on their lives,” Dickens wrote in 1996. “I just think it was an eye-opener for a lot of people to hear two women singing together, doing what the men did in bluegrass.”