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April 20, 2004
Traditional Singers Hazel Dickens and Helen Schneyer to Perform at Library of Congress on May 15
Hazel Dickens and Helen Schneyer, two notable traditional singers with longtime connections to the Washington area, will share the stage for a concert in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. The free concert will take place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 15; no tickets are required.
The event is sponsored by the Library's Music Division in cooperation with the American Folklife Center and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington and presented with support from the Irving Caesar Lifetime Trust.
Known for her hard-hitting compositions and haunting vocals, Dickens will appear with an all-star band, including Dudley Connell of the Seldom Scene. Dickens was born in Mercer County, W.Va., the daughter of a banjo-picking father who hauled timber for the coal mines. Her brothers were musicians, and she sang in the church choir and listened to the Grand Ole Opry as she was growing up.
In the 1950s Dickens moved to the Baltimore area to work and a few years later relocated to Washington, where she got to know the local bluegrass and folk musicians. She broke new musical ground in the 1960s with Alice Gerrard as "Hazel and Alice,"creating a sound that has inspired a generation of women performers. She has written numerous songs, including "Working Girl Blues," "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There," "Black Lung," and "West Virginia, My Home," which have become bluegrass and country standards.
Dickens' songs were featured in the award-winning film "Harlan County, U.S.A.," and in 1986 she appeared and sang in John Sayles' "Matewan," a film about the massacre of striking coal miners in 1920. She has recorded several solo albums for Rounder Records in addition to those with Alice Gerrard. Dickens was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001 for her contributions to traditional music in America.
Schneyer, who now lives in Plainfield, Vt., was also a fixture on the Washington folk music scene for several decades. Whether she is singing old ballads, Victorian parlor songs or jubilant gospel music, Schneyer moves the audience with the emotional impact of her strong contralto. She has been a regular guest on "A Prairie Home Companion" and has appeared on concert stages throughout the United States and Europe.
Schneyer grew up in New York City during the 1930s and 40s, and from an early age she was part of the liberal folk music movement and sang with such luminaries as Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax and Paul Robeson. During the war she lived in Washington, where she sang with the Priority Ramblers in a performance for Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. After a period of living in Buffalo, N.Y., and raising a family, she returned to Washington in 1960; for the next 25 years she was active in the Washington folk scene.
The avant-garde composer John Cage heard Schneyer sing and was so impressed with her voice that he included her in national and international tours of his works during the 1970s. In 1987 Schneyer moved to Vermont, where she continues to pursue a busy concert schedule. She has recorded three albums and has a new release in the works.
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