1992 N.C. Heritage Award Recipient
The important role that women have played in preserving the ballads, folk, and sacred songs of the Blue Ridge mountains has lately come to be acknowledged and documented. Less attention has been given to women's contributions to the instrumental music traditions of the region. Through the generations, female fiddlers, banjo players, and guitarists have mastered the repertoire and techniques of old-time music and have inspired and entertained their friends and families.
Born in Grayson County, Virginia, in 1902, Bertie Dickens lived most of her life in the community of Ennice in Allegheny County, North Carolina. The stringband music traditions of this area are among the richest to be found anywhere in the South. Mrs. Dickens's father, Sid Caudill, was considered one of the finest fiddlers of his generation, and he welcomed musicians to the family home. Recalled Mrs. Dickens, "A bunch of them, they'd come there at my daddy's, sit up about all night long and play. Just fiddle and banjo, they didn't even have a guitar. It was like having a fiddler's convention every weekend."
Raised in this musical environment, Mrs. Dickens learned to play the fiddle and banjo as a young child. She proved to have a special touch on the banjo and learned both the old-time clawhammer style as well as a two-finger, up-picking technique that is heard only rarely in the region today. She chose her notes carefully, playing only those that were essential to convey the melody. She filled in behind the melody with a complex and lilting rhythmic accompaniment that was perfect to dance to. Her style was described by fellow musician and friend Alice Gerrard as "sparse and beautiful, like Bert herself, with a classic dignity and sound."
Mrs. Dickens never sought a career as a professional musician, though in her younger years she performed with other local players at dances, cornshuckings, woodcuttings, and at fiddler's conventions. The music that she played in a stringband with her brother Joe was fondly and respectfully remembered by the older residents in the area.
By 1992, Mrs. Dickens was 89 and stayed close to home. She and her husband Marvin planted a garden every year and attended to the numerous chores required to maintain their small, well-kept farm in Ennice. She still found time to accommodate visitors who wanted to hear a tune. And she had not lost her ability to provide beautiful accompaniment with her Gibson banjo to any fiddler who shared her repertoire.
Mr. and Mrs. Dickens raised four children and enjoyed the company of their grand- and great-grandchildren. Mrs. Dickens passed away in 1994, two years after a family gathering to celebrate the couple’s seventieth wedding anniversary.