YouTube video

Hazel Dickens died in her sleep Thursday night. She was 75 years old.

Hazel was a child of the West Virginia coalfields and a singer with a voice that was both riveting and unmistakable. She is best known for her duets with Alice Gerrard. As “Hazel and Alice,” they recorded two bluegrass albums that expressed pride in mountain culture and a powerful and unique working class feminism.

“She was a treasure, a musical pioneer in bluegrass music, a gifted songwriter, an activist and a very wise woman who saw the truth in things and spoke it freely,” Goldenseal magazine editor and musician John Lilly told the Charleston Gazette Friday. “She sang and wrote about mining issues and mine safety issues and women’s issues in general, and spoke up in her songs and conversation for people who needed a voice.”

The clip above is from Mimi Pickering’s 2001 movie Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song.

Dickens music influenced Emmylou Harris and inspired Naomi Judd, a single mother in rural Kentucky, to begin singing with her daughter, Wynonna, according to the New York Times. (A Washington Post obituary can be found here.)

Dickens was a tireless advocate of the United Mine Workers of America and a strong opponent of coal strip mining. She had already agreed to play at a June 5 rally to protest strip mining on Blair Mountain, where thousands of striking UMW miners in 1921 fought strike breakers, police and, eventually, the U.S. Army, which intervened on the side of coal mine owners.

Hazel’s father, Hillary Dickens trucked timber to coal mines and served as a Primitive Baptist preacher. (She was the 8th of eleven children.) “He taught me to love the old-time country way of singing,” Dickens said in 2009. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t sing. I’d just open up my mouth and let it roar.”

•Several U.S. Department of Agriculture employees have filed complaints that Communications Director Chris Mather discriminated in hiring and promotions on the basis of age, gender and political preference. Nine complaints have been filed, Agripulse reports.

The eight employees (current and former) who filed the complaint said, “Never in our entire careers have we encountered such egregious, mean and poor management.”

Mather and USDA reject these claims. But we wonder what Mather, a Chicago political operative, was doing as communications director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the first place?

•WMMT radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, has a good report on broadband availability in rural America. You can listen to it here.

• Blacks are leaving the cities for the suburbs, the Washington Post reports. Eight of the strongest black-majority congressional districts lost an average of ten percent of their African American population, as families moved out of cities into the surrounding countryside.

The effect in redistricting will be to help Republicans, who can now back inner suburbs (more Black and Democratic) into city districts, making the surrounding districts more securely Republican.

• Massey energy CEO Don Blankenship earned $9 million in 2010, the year his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine exploded and killed 29 miners. That was 48 percent less than what Blankenship earned the year before.

• Members of the Rural Cellular Association continue to oppose AT&T’s proposed acquisition (for $39 billion) of T-Mobile. They are mostly afraid of not having access to the latest in technology, as the giants AT&T and Verizon would get first dibs on any new phones. They also say smaller companies will be dependent on the two giants for national coverage.

• The South is selling, according to Business Week:

While Brooklyn hipsters have long dressed like sharecroppers, lower- and middle-brow Southern culture is now rising across the globe. Music duo the Bellamy Brothers, marginally famous for their country hit Let Your Love Flow, are currently playing to sold-out crowds in South Africa and Sri Lanka, where, according to their booking agent Judy Seale, they’re “treated like Elvis.” In the U.K., sales of Kentucky bourbon have risen by 25 percent since 2005, according to London-based market research firm International Wine and Spirits Research. The independent movie Winter’s Bone, which chronicles a teenage girl’s travails chopping wood and killing squirrels, is on pace to eclipse its U.S. domestic gross with overseas revenue. Chris Benz isn’t the only fashion guru going full Southern. According to agrarian-chic designer Billy Reid, the global customer is now attracted to products that have “Southern roots.”

December corn is selling now for $6.57 a bushel. Last year this time, it was selling for $3.40.

• Iowa State’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development has found that “the contribution of ethanol subsidies to food inflation is largely imperceptible in the United States,” Agripulse reports.

The research group ran computer models to determine if government subsidies for ethanol had greatly increased the price of corn. Of the $1.65 bushel increase in corn prices between 2006 and 2009, the computers found that only 14 cents (8%) was due to federal subsidies.

Another 45 cents was due to market demand for ethanol, so, together, market demand for corn-based ethanol and ethanol subsidies accounted for 32% of the increase in corn prices.

• U.S. food sales were flat in 2010. But organic food sales grew by 7.7%.

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