In the week following the election of Donald Trump, I have found myself pulled toward the former protest music of the white working class. How did we get from Hazel Dickens to Donald Trump? Hazel Dickens spoke out against the elites, gave a voice to working class (whether they themselves were wage-earners or not) women and warned us all (black, brown and white) not to trust the bosses who promise the mines are safe today.
In an interview for a PBS documentary, Hazel spoke of the fact that urban and rural working people were in the same boat. In this transcription, she speaks of her brother’s inspiring her to write her signature song, “Black Lung,” and of her experience moving to Baltimore in search of work:
“It was very astounding to me to learn later on after I got away from home–I left when I was 16 to go to work–that one of my brothers, my oldest brother had lived his entire life and never got any further than he did when he started out, as a teenager in the mines. And he lived his whole life, had six children, and he died with not enough to even bury himself. And we had to go to the welfare to get enough to bury him. It just seemed like, in a country like this, that people shouldn’t have to live and be buried as poor as when they came into the world. And that was the first that I began questioning the way the economy was in the world, and the way poor people are treated. This [Black Lung] is the song I wrote for my brother, so that he would have some kind of voice in this world. . .
The first job I got was in a factory. I worked about three factories, then I got a job as waitress, then I got a job in sales work. Having gone out into the world and getting into the work force myself, I began to see how the working class people were exploited and that, here I am, out there, and I’m one of them now. It just made me have a whole different view of what working people had to go through. I looked back then on my people, and on what they had come from, and how they had worked all their lives, and I looked at those that had left to find a better way of life. And I didn’t see that they had any pot of gold, you know, at the end of that rainbow, that they thought they were going to find. They still had to work just as hard, even though they were in the city.”
The following clip is me singing “Rebel Girl,” written by Joe Hill, lyrics updated by Hazel Dickens, and updated further by me to reflect my disappointment–and then hope–following the election.