May 2023 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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The Stories of I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard

Voice Magazine for Women, a free, monthly publication distributed regionally in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to 650 locations, partners with the Birthplace of Country Music an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, to take you inside the special exhibit I’ve Endured: Women Old-Time Music, on display at the museum through December 31, 2023. Each month through the duration of the exhibit, Voice features impactful stories of the hidden heroines, activists, and commercial success stories of the women who laid the foundation for country music. Inspiring, insightful, and Dolly-approved, you may just find a piece of yourselves, or a loved one, in the stories of some of these hidden figures in American music.

With their permission, we have duplicated our “I’ve Endured: Woman in Old-Time Music” special feature article for this month – we hope you enjoy it! To read this month’s issue in its entirety, click here.

The Stories of I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music
Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard
By Guest Contributor Charlene Tipton Baker

old Photo of Alice Gerrard posing with guitar with no shoes
Alice Gerrard, Photo by Henry Horenstein

“When I was 13 years old I heard a Hazel Dickens song and it changed my life. I would not be doing what I do without her, Elizabeth Cotten, Ola Belle Reed, Alice Gerrard, and so many other incredible women featured in this exhibit.” ~ Molly Tuttle

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard were two of the most influential bluegrass musicians of the 20th century. Their focus on women’s issues and their influences from old-time music helped to create a unique sound that set them apart from their male counterparts. Their contributions to the genre continue to be felt today, as they have inspired countless musicians and helped to shape the sound of the genre.

Dickens was born in the coal mining community of Mercer County, West Virginia, and though she later moved to Baltimore, she continued to be an advocate and activist for mine workers and their families. A native of Seattle, Washington, Gerrard was exposed to folk music while in college. The duo met in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s and quickly formed a musical partnership that would last for several decades. They recorded their first album together, Who’s That Knocking? in 1965. Featuring a mix of traditional ballads and original compositions, the album showcased their vocal harmonies and instrumental skills. It was a critical success and helped to establish Dickens and Gerrard as influential musicians in the bluegrass scene.

Hazel Dickens sitting down playing the guitar outside
Hazel Dickens, photo from the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project Collection, 1965—1989, #20004, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One of the most significant contributions that the duo made to bluegrass music was their focus on women’s issues. Their music often addressed themes of social justice, economic hardship, and the struggles of rural women. In a genre that was largely dominated by men, Dickens and Gerrard were trailblazers for women in bluegrass music.

Gerrard and Dickens’ influence on the genre can be seen in the many female bluegrass artists who have followed in their footsteps – along with women in other genres who have been inspired by their example. Women such as Emmylou Harris, Naomi Judd, and Claire Lynch have all cited Dickens and Gerrard as significant influences on their music. Additionally, the all-female country band, The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks), has credited Dickens and Gerrard with inspiring their sound and their approach to songwriting.

In an interview with the Washington Post in 1996, Naomi Judd recalled the moment she and a then 12-year-old Wynonna first heard the album Hazel & Alice:

“Their whole sound was so unpolished, so authentic, 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.”

Dickens was the first woman to receive the Merit Award from IBMA and was presented with a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001, the highest honor for folk and traditional arts in the United States. A tireless advocate for traditional music, Gerrard has earned numerous honors including an International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Distinguished Achievement Award, a Virginia Arts Commission Award, the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Tommy Jarrell Award, and an Indy Award. Dickens and Gerrard were inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame in 2017.

Last fall Smithsonian Folkways released newly remastered editions of their first two albums Who’s That Knocking? and Won’t You Come and Sing for Me? The albums had been unavailable on vinyl for over 40 years. On the same day, Folkways released Pioneering Women of Bluegrass: The Definitive Edition, which included every track recorded by the duo for Folkways in addition to a bonus track. The CD features notes and an essay by Gerrard who is now 88 years old and still performing. Dickens passed away in 2011 due to complications of pneumonia. She is often referred to as the “First Lady of Bluegrass.”

Stay tuned! Next month’s I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music spotlight will focus on renowned Piedmont Blues guitarist and singer Etta Baker who performed music up into her 90s. The North Carolina native said she received chords for her music in her dreams. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd cite Baker as an influence on their own music.

To learn more about I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music, visit!

Thank You, Teachers!

Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day, also known as National Teacher Day. The National Education Association notes that this is “a day for honoring teachers and recognizing the lasting contributions they make to our lives.”

Here at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, we can’t sing the praises of teachers high enough – we love working with them and finding new ways to connect with teachers and their students. Teachers do too many amazing things for us to list them all. However, we are going to share our top six reasons why teachers ROCK, and because we are a music museum, we are using the guitar – a fundamental instrument of country music – and its six guitar string notes, listed from the bottom string up, as our inspiration: E B G D A E!

A graphic of a hand holding the neck of a guitar. The six strings are labelled bottom string to top string as EGBDAE/123456.

Graphic of a guitar neck with the strings labelled bottom to top as EBGDAE/123456. ©

E String

Being a teacher is hard, but despite the challenges faced, teachers strive to encourage and excite their students to learn, think critically, and explore the world around them every single day. We often see the evidence of this with the student who come through our doors – many of them have learned about early country music or local history or technology in their classrooms already, priming them for a more meaningful experience and providing us with a lot of great questions and observations as we share the museum with them.

B String

And this leads to the tangible outcome of this prep – when teachers bring students to the museum. We are so grateful for the school field trips that are scheduled at the museum, and we’ve seen the number of these tours continually grow since we opened in 2014. Some teachers and students are coming for the first time; other educators bring their classes year-after-year. They come from our local Bristol, TN/VA schools, the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region, and even further afield, including schools in Georgia, Northern Virginia, and Iowa!

Not only do teachers bring students to visit the museum, but they also put a lot of effort into the planning of and during these field trips, which always makes the experience better for all of us.

A large theater space with school students seated while a white man in a red shirt and khaki pants talks to them from the stage floor.

A student group is introduced to the museum and the orientation film by docent Richard Horner. © Birthplace of Country Music

G String

We are also lucky to get useful guidance from teachers. Through school tour surveys, teacher in-service workshops, and one-on-one conversations, educators provide us with amazing feedback that help us to improve our programs for students and teachers alike. In 2020 and 2021, we worked with a focus group of teachers from the Bristol, TN/VA public schools to hear about their ideas, suggestions, wants, and needs for our museum-based lesson plan project, and we also had our first teacher intern who helped us on the project and to deliver two impactful in-service workshops for K-12 educators. The insights we gained from this experience were invaluable!

D String

The teachers we partner with strive to develop creative and interesting ways to engage their students with the museum and its content. We’ve had so many positive experiences working with different classes and learning groups – from the YWCA TechGYRLS production of a radio show to mark the Smithsonian’s Museum Day Live! event; the fun activities we’ve done with the Virginia Middle School after-school club (including square dancing, the science of sound, and an upcoming instrument petting zoo); the class that had been immersed in Johnny Cash’s music before our Johnny Cash/Folsom Prison special exhibit in 2022; and talking to a high school class about the things that go into curating a small exhibit, how to write museum labels, and ways to engage people with their own content.

Left: A group of 8 young girls pose together in front of a chalkboard that says "YWCA TechGYRLS Radio Program 1pm." Right: A large group of male and female students pose in the Johnny Cash exhibit. They are all wearing black in honor of "the man in black"!

Left: The YWCA TechGRYLS pose with the notice of their radio show in the museum lobby. Right: A group of students honor the “man in black” by wearing all black when visiting 1968: A Folsom Redemption in 2022. © Birthplace of Country Music

A String

As we said earlier, being a teacher is a hard job. But the teachers we know are amazing advocates for their students and for the joy of learning. And they are ALWAYS doing so much to support their students, to help them thrive, to be a positive person in their life, and so much more.

And they also advocate for us – by bringing their classes to the museum, by sharing events and other opportunities we offer to students and their families, and by letting our community know that the museum is an important educational asset.

E String

Finally, the teachers who visit the museum  encourage smiles and laughs from their students throughout their time with us. They play Banjo Bingo; they sing along in the karaoke booth; they give a whole host of answers to one of our favorite questions: how many grooves are on a record?; they dance in the Immersion Theater; and so much more. They show the kids that you can learn AND have fun at the same time!

Left: Sullins Academy's Head of School and one of its teachers try out a student activity for the special exhibit Things Come Apart. They are both kneeling on the ground putting together a "vehicle" from PVC pipe. Right: A group of Sullins Academy students pose around their PVC pipe vehicle. There are six white students - 3 boys, 3 girls - and they are doing funny faces and poses.

Sullins Academy teachers and students took part in a vehicle-building exercise as part of the Things Come Apart special exhibit at the museum in 2017. © Birthplace of Country Music

Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and oversees its educational programming. She loves teachers!