Hazel Dickens

It's commonplace in our cynical world for people to respond to an overabundance of inequality and suffering with an infuriating shrug of the shoulders: Well, hey, nobody said the world was perfect. But there's a difference between inescapable imperfections -- death specifically, for instance, or pain generally -- and the sorts we might actually remedy if only we worked together. Hazel Dickens's classic bluegrass release, 1987's It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, just reissued by Rounder, gets this difference down cold. So on the first half of the album, Dickens devotes her keening, holler-bred voice -- there has never been a more expressive instrument in all of American popular music -- to songs of losses romantic, historical, and biological. (“Here today, gone tomorrow,” she cries over some dear departed. “That's how this old world is.”) The exquisitely painful “A Few Old Memories” could be about any one of these kinds of heartache, or all of them together.

But the title track then transitions our hearts out into a wider world, where lessons are never strictly personal, even though they're always learned “on the streets of life alone.” Those streets are teeming with the victims of decidedly manmade imperfections: old folks abandoned, workers exploited, humans left homeless (a version of Bob Dylan's “Only a Hobo”) or marched off to die in a war. “There's blood on your hands, mister, you'll answer for one day./And the tears you shed on that day won't wash your sins away,” Dickens declares, and the only thing that might better express the difference between hey, the world's not perfect and hell, let's get to work is the mixture of tears and anger in her cry.

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David Cantwell