Remembering Bess Lomax Hawes

By Anna Lomax Wood

My aunt, folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes died on Friday, November 27th, 2009, in Portland, Oregon, with her children holding her by the hand. She lived long and serenely through the many health crises that beset her in her later years, so that we began to imagine that she would go on forever. Just the fact of her living on so quietly seemed to ensure the continuation of her spirit, which touched and inspired all who knew her.  I am grateful that my father, who was her older brother, did not live to see her passing, because she was the person of his own generation he most loved, admired and relied upon.

Bess Lomax Hawes and Alan Lomax, New York City, 1975

Youngest child of Texas folklorist John A. Lomax and Bess Bauman-Brown, Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009) went on to enlarge the scope and influence of the folklore field and to vastly enrich the nation's perception of itself as a creative multicultural society - fostering and advancing numberless younger colleagues and folk artists in the process.

Older sister Shirley was a flapper and a beauty; oldest brother, John Jr., an athlete and award-winning businessperson by the age of eight, Alan, seven years older, was sickly, unconventional, and brilliant  - an enfant terrible, and Bess was cooperative, conscientious, and good. The Lomax family was close knit and, although each member possessed distinctive temperament, personality, and interests, they felt a solidarity that carried over well into the next generation. Their mother, who died when Bess was ten years old, taught the children Latin, music, and math. Bess, who was home schooled, enjoyed piano was soon taking outside formal lessons and practicing four hours a day, with her mother seated beside her at the piano.  As she recalled in her autobiography:

So until I was ten years old I stayed home with Mother, and she taught me Latin and piano and medieval history and lots of unusual things. But she also taught me the day-to-day things. She taught me how to sew, for example. . . .  But then I had to learn how to do it right. So she gave me a Latin motto to think about every day. She gave all her children different Latin mottoes. My brother Alan’s was Festina lente, which means “Make haste slowly.” Mine, though, was Faciendo ediscere facere, which means, “By doing, you learn to do.” She would tell me over and over, “By reading, you learn to read, Bess,” “By running you learn to run,” and “By sewing, you learn to sew.” Bess Hawes, Sing it Pretty: a Memoir (2008)

Her mother’s aplomb and can-do spirit even extended to car maintenance, she “would spread a pad of newspaper on our gravel drive way, drive the car into position over it, and then slide herself under it on her back in her usual housedress and stockings, quite decorously” and change the oil.

"Father" read to the whole family, ranging over Shakespeare and a gamut of eighteenth and nineteenth century stories and novels, and "most of the narrative poems in an enormous volume of classic English poetry." He "teared up a bit in the sad parts and put plenty of power into the fight scenes," Bess recalled. "It was quite an education, but Father and Mother were proud of their own education and proud to be feeding the classics into their children."

They sang family songs, many of the sentimental or light parlor ditty variety, others learned from black household help and John A.'s cowboy song collections. They went on family excursions and vacations with chickens and dogs all packed into the car. Bess Brown helped her husband write his lectures and booked his calendar - a job later taken over by John A., Jr. There were family stories, retold and multiplying over the years. And tamales, biscuits, fried chicken, and barbeque - for the Lomaxes were serious gourmands. All the while old Mrs. Brown, who lived with them until she died, mourned and prayed in her room over the family's wicked ways.

An accomplished musician and singer, Bess assisted her father, her brother, and composer Ruth Crawford Seeger in compiling the groundbreaking folksong anthology, Our Singing Country, while just teenager, ferrying messages and discs between the attics of the Library of Congress and the Seeger household, as the three authors poured over hundreds of recordings. Apparently John A. had no qualms about taking young Bess along to transcribe songs on at least one collecting expedition songs at Angola prison; and she also accompanied him and his second wife, Ruby Terrill, on a folk collecting tour of Appalachia, where she was deeply moved by the poverty she encountered. Later, while attending Bryn Mawr College, Bess innocently welcomed visiting poet Carl Sandburg, a Lomax family friend, with a gift of such a fine bottle of whiskey that he was unable to attend a luncheon in his honor and gave his scheduled lecture in an inebriated state. At a reception that evening:

President Marion Park - a quiet, impeccable lady and a formidable scholar - stood at the door to introduce the eminent speaker. When he caught sight of me, Sandburg grabbed me in an enthusiastic hug and said to Dr. Park, "This is a wonderful young lady you have here; you don't know how lucky you are. I started reading poetry to her when she was no more than five years old. And do you know what she just did for me? She sent and elegant bottle of whiskey to my room to help me relax and feel welcome on my first trip to Bryn Mawr." Dr. Park never turned a hair. She said, "Mr. Sandburg, we entirely agree with you about Bess and are delighted to have her among our students..."

Looking back, with characteristic attentiveness to the nuances of social relationships, Bess commented:

][It] seems to me that all three of the active participants behaved according to their own admirable standards. I upheld my family's views on hospitality. Sandburg managed to prod and soothe his sensitive audience and still happily greet his old friend's daughter, and President Park calmly refused to make an issue out of a well-meant but ill-conceived action that would probably never recur. A dicey situation handled well, especially by the experienced Dr. Park. - Sing it Pretty: a Memoir (2008)

After graduating college in 1941 with a degree in sociology, Bess went to live in New York City. She joined the Almanac Singers with songwriter Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Millard Lampell (later a screenwriter), moving into Almanac house. There,she met and fell in love with one of the group's composers, Baldwin (Butch) Hawes, an artist descended from New Orleans writer George Washington Cable and a distinguished New England family. It was during Bess and Butch's early years of married life in Cambridge, where they threw themselves into progressive causes, that Bess began teaching guitar, and, with Jacqueline Steiner, composed "Charlie on the MTA," later a hit song by the Kingston Trio. Her children maintain that Bess appreciated "Charlie" mainly because he helped put them through college.

In 1952, the couple moved to California with their three children, "darling" Corey, Naomi, and Nicholas, seeking a better climate for Butch's arthritis. Bess helped to support their growing family by giving lessons in guitar, mandolin, and folk singing, employing a unique and highly successful group teaching method, which she developed and honed over many years. She then went on to teach folklore at San Fernando Valley State College, simultaneously earning her Masters Degree in folklore under Alan Dundes at Berkeley.

At home, Bess continued her own family traditions, teaching the children music, singing and sewing, and encouraging Butch to read to them, knitting together a family that only seemed to draw closer over the years. There was little money but there were other resources. As teenage girl scouts, Corey and Naomi made enough money to go with their troop to Europe. Upon first being introduced into the Hawes household when I was sixteen, we girls were all set to making our own dresses for the summer, and while we cut and sewed and tried on, Nick played guitar and piano for us and made up hysterically funny skits and comic songs. At dinner Butch led elegant discussions of the news of the day, treating us with the respect and dignity normally accorded only to important adults and sages. It was like finding oneself in one of Dickens’ benevolent families or among the Little Women; for me it was a much-needed antidote for a near disastrous adolescence.

In 1965, the archeologist and visual anthropologist Edmund Carpenter invited Bess to join his newly organized anthropology department at Cal State Northridge, where they collaborated on a series of films demonstrating Georgia Sea Island song and dance traditions and children’s game songs. Bess's longtime interest in children's folklore and her exploration, along with her brother Alan, of the inclusive African traditions of the Georgia Sea Islanders, were brought to fruition in her collaboration with the master of Sea Island folk culture, Bessie Jones, with whom she wrote a classic book about game songs, Step It Down. Later, with Alan Lomax and J. D. Elder, she co-authored Brown Girl In the Ring, a teaching book of children's game songs from the Eastern Caribbean, published in 1997.

She was also fascinated by the magical appeal of widely popular traditions such as the "Happy Birthday" song and the Mexican legend of La Llorona and published uniquely insightful accounts of these and similar phenomena. Later, in the course of her job at the national Arts Endowment, she found herself personally drawn to the gracious people of the Pacific and their endangered cultural traditions. Equally delighted with Bess, the Islanders honored her with the title of Big Woman, giving her at least one good reason to be pleased about her weight, usually a source of worry.

In  1974-75 the Smithsonian Institution invited Bess to organize a celebration of California culture for its national folk arts festival on the Washington Mall. Naomi Bishop describes a remarkable panoply, including or referencing the full range of culture from this huge state:

... traditional performers, craftspeople, and ethnicities ranging from Portuguese dairy farmers of the Central Valley, Chicano rodeo riders, Assyrian singers, San Diego tuna fishermen, to San Francisco cable car bell ringers, Mexican American son jarochoand mariachi musicians, a hobo scissors grinder, Chicano urban muralists, a blues pianist, an Irish uilleann piper, and a Russian Molokan choir from Los Angeles.

The following year Bess co-directed the bicentennial festival on the Mall, which featured folk artists from three continents demonstrating the contributions of American Indian, Hispanics, and Anglo American traditions to American culture.

By this time, Bess was becoming well known in Washington and national circles and took a job heading up the first folk arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts. She quickly made an ally of her boss, Nancy Hanks, a Reagan appointee and a conservative, committed, like Bess, to high standards. The idea of a democratic, non-elitist arts program the arts that served ordinary people, yet employed clear measures of artistic excellence and authenticity, appealed to her. It also appealed to Congress, to whom Bess and her allies pitched the folk arts program as bi-partisan and as likely to have an impact in rural areas, among working class constituents, and in all areas of the country, as in urban centers. Bess shrewdly decided to devote part of her initially small budget to establishing a network of folklorists throughout the country. As Jane Beck tells it,

[Bess] pointed out that seldom were artists who had learned their art traditionally and informally, known or recognized, and she was determined to change that. Her model was to fund folk arts coordinators within state arts councils. These coordinators would not only be expected to do fieldwork, but would learn to navigate the intricacies of state government and work with a variety of individuals from other state agencies, thus becoming a part of a state network. Her ultimate goal was to have the state pick up the funding for the folk art coordinator positions, once their worth and value had been established. She was incredibly successful and she changed the direction of the field.

When a folk arts coordinator's position was filled, Bess would stick a colored pin into a map she kept in her office. "She used to point to the map with great pride as the number of pins, and states, and public folklorists, increased," recalls Jeff Titon. "It was as if this gentle lady was mapping an occupying army moving into positions around the country."

Directly and through the state and local folk arts coordinators, the NEA Folk Arts Program helped bring into the light hundreds if not thousands of brilliant and sometimes little-known artistic traditions, significant in their communities and therefore a meaningful part of the nation’s cultural collage. Looking to the Japanese and Russian models, Bess also created the National Heritage Fellowships, which honoring individual artists. There is no doubt that the visibility, acceptance and appreciation the folk arts and folk artists now enjoy, seen everywhere from arts programming to advertising and popular culture, is due in large part to the work of these programs. And as Jeff Titon points out,

... [U]nder Bess's direction NEA-Folk Arts pioneered in the efforts to aid communities develop and maintain their expressive culture, giving grants totaling nearly $3 million annually during the 1980s. The current major efforts by UNESCO and WIPO to "safeguard traditional culture" can be seen as emanating in part from the pioneering US public folklore efforts of Bess Hawes and Ralph Rinzler, Alan Jabbour, Joe Wilson, Alan Lomax, and Archie Green.

Bess possessed rare intellectual clarity and personal integrity. She had an original and beguiling way of framing every problem, and imparted her ideas and convictions - and her directives - with great tact and ladylike charm, behind which lay an immense fund of determination. These qualities earned her esteem and popularity in all of her roles - as teacher and arts administrator, mentor and colleague, friend and family member.  Among the many tributes that have come from colleagues and former mentees, several call to mind Bess’s subtle command of the social graces and the well-placed bon mot. For example, when Bess was mobbed at one busy meeting, folklorist Willie Smyth watched how she would simply move her feet slightly when she was finished talking with someone, so that she and that person would no longer be standing face to face. Jeff Titon and others recall how she would tilt her head and roll her eyes ever so slightly when meetings got off track, and errant individuals would usually fall back into line. The following vignette from the World of Public Folklore Under Bess came from Hal Cannon, Director of the Western Folklife Center:

I remember the way that she would smile and sort of crinkle her face at the same time. It was almost as though she was saying in her look, "Let's get the niceties out of the way so we can get down to business." Then getting down to business could mean anything. She kept us all on our toes. Maybe there were those of us who were perfect children but most of us, over the years, not only felt loved but got a serious 'talking to' when Bess got down to business.

Yes, Bess was smooth. Tulane folklorist and NPR host Nick Spitzer recalled how, in the early years at the Arts Endowment, when challenged by her august colleagues for whom the folk arts were decidedly lesser stars in the arts firmament, Bess would smile reassuringly at them and say in her best motherly tone, "It’s a bi-ig culture out there."

Life had not been easy for Bess. She was a child of the Depression and she and Butch lived through the McCarthy era and its aftermath as courageous progressives. She had had childhood asthma, and adulthood passed in the era of carefree smoking and drinking eventually took its toll on her health. In 1932, when she was just ten, her mother died and her happy home fell apart. Her father, who had lost his job as well, collapsed in despair. During the succeeding years until his remarriage, John A.'s need for solace was so great that he no doubt leaned too heavily on Bess, and she finally escaped to Lubbock to live with her married sister Shirley. As he had done with Alan, his other favorite, John A. jealously opposed Bess's marriage to Butch, apparently enraged at her marrying someone he claimed was descended from a disreputable scandalmonger - having (perhaps purposely) confused George Washington Cable with another man.

Topanga Canyon was a long way away from old John's heavy sighs and criticisms. But productive, happy and surrounded by as many friends though they were, the family were distressed by Butch's growing ill health, and struggled for years on the edge of real poverty - only made lighter perhaps by the fact that in those days, for artists, dire and more dire were pretty much the norm. Sister Shirley came out one year and found the couple without even a mattress. When the children were young, a kitchen fire ravaged little Naomi and years of surgeries followed; but that, too, only seemed to strengthen the family as the children grew into strong adulthood and independence. But when at last Bess achieved a degree of economic security, she was deprived of enjoying it with Butch, who died in 1970.

I'd like to think that her extended family played a role in making those years without Butch happier ones. With sister Shirley living with her for two years, and children and nieces and nephews coming and going in her comfortable Arlington apartment, she couldn't have been lonely for very long. The Lomax tradition had remained strong. In an age before email, they had religiously copied one another in a lively stream of family correspondence, customarily read out loud to everyone at the breakfast table. Alan regularly sent news of his projects, and as representative of his father’s estate, consulted with his siblings on all matters regarding their publishing interests in the books he and his father had written. Like the other Lomax aunts and uncles, Bess’s kindness to her nieces and nephews was unstinting. There was always a place for any and all of us  - and our friends - wherever she was. At whatever stage we might have been - however awkward, errant, or foolishly vain - she made us feel worthwhile and that she particularly enjoyed our company.

In the extended family Bess and Alan were especially close. "The twin towers and pillars of cultural equity," Cariacou playwright and folklorist, Winston Fleary called them. Alan's encouraging brotherly letters to Bess began when she was a schoolgirl in Texas and he was away at Choate and continued until, as an old man, all he could do was to trace her name and the words, "the song." They began to work seriously together in the 1960s, studying how to help Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers realize all of their artistic capacities and have the broad and diverse impact they thought they could. Bess worked with Alan on Cantometrics, doing a special study of lullabies using the method. When the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife began to develop full-blown regional and ethnic immigrant programming under Ralph Rinzler's leadership, Alan and Bess were on the phone with Ralph on a daily basis, helping him to develop policies, content, and meaningful cultural frameworks, and connecting him with the great musicologists, folklorists and cultural workers at home and abroad. When Bess moved to the Endowment, her intense colloquies with Alan continued.

It was during this period, when I was a fledging anthropologist and public folklorist, that Bess mentored me as she did so many others, with incredible patience and generosity. I remember being amazed when a couple of times she asked me to room with her at the American Folklore Society meetings, no doubt to make sure I'd come. We were both worried about my father, who was depressed over rejections of Cantometrics; also, to my surprise, we shared similar feelings of being subsumed by Alan's encompassing knowledge and overwhelming personality. Those close to him knew both the excitement and the discomfort of feeling like an extension of Alan. Bess and I spent long hours mulling these things over.

Bess let neither illness, tragedy, nor personal limitations (if indeed she had any!) get in the way of what she felt she or her loved ones and colleagues needed to do. And like her brother Alan, she allowed no bitterness or cynicism to seep into her system. As Winston Fleary said, she was a compassionate woman and was "indomitable, amiable, and vivacious." She refused to keep grudges, but instead nurtured her faith in the fundamental capacity for good in human nature. At the same time, she seemed to see people and situations for what they were, kindly but unsentimentally - and just a little larger than life, heightened by that peculiar Southern sense of the comedic and the absurd.

Although she kept to the Southern woman's tradition of doing for others, Bess was no ascetic, and surrounded herself with things she loved, beautiful things - brilliant African American quilts, South Pacific necklaces, grey-green North Carolina pottery, molas from Cuna Land, and striking portraits in charcoal by Butch. She enjoyed nothing better than taking family and friends to the theatre or a scrumptuous Vietnamese or Indian dinner, and in later years taking her children on exotic cruises and excursions. And a stiff drink was something she did relish on occasion.

Bess's daughter Corey Denos became a teacher in Vancouver who developed new methods of teaching younger children. Second daughter Naomi Bishop became an anthropologist specializing primatology and Himalayan peoples. Nicholas Hawes created the archives of Acadian history at Fort Kent, Maine, and is a musician and composer. Son by marriage, John Bishop, is a filmmaker. In 1993, President Clinton awarded Bess the National Medal of Arts. Her children and grandchildren filled Bess's last years.

Thus did Bess Lomax Hawes shine her light on us and contribute to the cause of liberating the human spirit.

Wonderful remembrances have come from many of Bess's friends and colleagues, her many "ducklings," as Mike Korn called them. I thank Jane Beck, Naomi Bishop, Hal Cannon, Winston Fleary, Willie Smyth, Nick Spitzer, and Jeff Titon for letting me borrow a few gems from their vivid and meaningful tributes

Additional Resources:

Bess Lomax Hawes Bio at Smithsonian Institution.

Obituary at Los Angeles Times.

Remembering Bess Lomax Hawes by Peter Dreier.

Bess Lomax Hawes Biography by Naomi Bishop.


The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes

Georgia Sea Island Singers (1964)

Shot in 35mm film with multiple cameras on a soundstage when the Sea Island Singers were visiting Los Angeles, this program presents a small part of their repertoire of sacred music, including the songs "Moses," "Yonder Comes Day," "Buzzard Lope (Throw Me Anywhere Lord)," "Adam in the Garden (Picking up Leaves)," and "Down in the Mire (Bright Star Shinning in Glory)."

Buckdancer (1965)

Featuring Panaloa County fife player Ed Young with Bessie Jones. Ed Young does the Buckdance, demonstrates making a fife, and plays a tune on the fife.

Pizza Pizza Daddy-O (1967)

The film looks at continuity and change in girl's playground games at a Los Angeles school. Free streaming version at Folk Streams.

Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle (1970)

Virtuoso fiddler Earl Collins, born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, moved to Southern California in the Depression. Available through Media Generation.




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