Long revered by feminists, Ms. Dickens’s music, and especially her songwriting, assumed an even more political cast almost as soon as she began pursuing a solo career in the wake of the duo’s breakup in 1976. Several of her songs, including “Coal Tattoo” and the rousing organizer’s anthem “They Never Keep Us Down,” served as the musical voice of conscience for Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, “Harlan County, U.S.A.”
A reluctant feminist role model, Ms. Dickens said she was originally scared to write about issues like sexism and the oppression of women.
“I can remember the first time I sang ‘Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here There,’ ” she said in her 1999 No Depression interview. “I was at a party standing in the middle of all these men. It was here in Washington. Bob Siggins was playing banjo, and when I got done, everyone just looked at each other, and Bob said, ‘That’s a nice song, but I won’t be able to sing it.’ And I said, ‘Of course you can.’ ”
“We were writing about our own experience,” she explained. “They were things we needed to say.”