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Voices Fall-Winter 2010:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Folk Arts Champion: Bess Lomax Hawes, 1921–2009” by Robert Baron.
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Volume 36
Fall-Winter
2010
Voices

Folk Arts Champion - Bess Lomax Hawes, 1921-2009, by Robert Baron

In Memoriam Bess Lomax Hawes, who decisively shaped American public folklore in the late twentieth century, died in Portland, Oregon, on November 27, 2009, at the age of 88. All Americans are indebted to Bess for her visionary leadership of the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Her major accomplishments also included directing programs at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, folk song and children’s folklore scholarship, and delightful singing and songwriting. New Yorkers had a special relationship with Bess. She lived here as a young woman, and as director of the NEA Folk Arts Program, she made possible indispensable support for our folk arts programs during the formative years of their development.

Folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes (right) at the National Medal of Arts awards ceremony in 1993. Other honorees included bandleader Cab
Calloway (left) and musician Ray Charles (center). Photo courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.
Folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes (right) at the National Medal of Arts awards ceremony in 1993. Other honorees included bandleader “Cab” Calloway (left) and musician Ray Charles (center). Photo courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.

Like everyone in my generation of public folklorists, I knew Bess as a wise, loving, and sometimes painfully pointed mentor. She never hesitated to give candid encouragement and criticism of our work. I spent many hours talking with Bess during the development of the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) in the 1980s, getting advice—both requested and unsolicited—about policy and program design and administration, hearing about her experiences at the NEA, and giving her feedback about her own granting program. Our program was one of many developed around the country, created through a grand plan conceived by Bess to support NEA-seeded programs in every state arts council. It was quite challenging to establish and institutionalize our program. The initial application to the NEA to fund the New York position resulted from the advocacy of Martin Koenig and Ethel Raim of the Balkan Arts Center (now the Center for Traditional Music and Dance), coupled with Bess’s behind-the-scenes work to prod NYSCA to apply for a folk arts coordinator position. As she did in many states, Bess kept a close eye on the NYSCA program to see that it was maintained, and when the folk arts position was threatened with elimination, she weighed in with all of her formidable persuasive powers and inimitable moral authority.

Bess was masterful about countering the elitism of the arts world, which was far more pervasive at the time than it is now. In her extraordinary Sing it Pretty: A Memoir, she recounts:
The fledgling Folk Arts Program had to wade through the usual thicket of misconceptions about the folk arts. ...Even at the National Endowment for the Arts, the most unassailable of these was and is the widespread notion that the singular function of traditional aesthetic systems is just to hang around for a while, being a stable bedrock and providing nutrients for the growth of later complexities, later styles, and later inventions....I found that there was an ever-present comic miasma hanging about the whole idea of the folk arts—an insidious, creeping, straw-hatted, “Oy, veh,” “Wall, I swan” déclassé stereotype....I laid down a rule for myself and, hopefully, all who might follow me: from this day forth ...no federal public expression, written or verbal, should allow the folk arts... to be portrayed as either comical or pitiful. They should be spoken of as sentient, strong, and intimately keyed into the essential structures of their own particular cultures. (2008, 129–30)

The NEA’s National Heritage Fellowships, initiated by Bess, highlight the strength and majesty of the nation’s best traditional artists. Well over twenty New Yorkers have been honored as National Heritage Fellows since this program began in 1982, with recipients including Chuck Campbell, Rosa Elena Egipciaco, Martin Mulvihill, Konstantinos Pylarinos, Sandman Sims, and Dave Tarras.

Bess spent much time in New York at the beginning of her career. Born in Austin in 1921, the daughter of John Lomax and Bess Bauman Brown Lomax, she grew up in Texas. She studied at the University of Texas for a year when she was just fourteen and then moved to Washington, where she worked with her father and brother Alan Lomax on editing Our Singing Country, listening with Alan to songs played at full volume over and over again in an attic office at the Library of Congress. After traveling around Europe, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College. As a student at Bryn Mawr, she visited Manhattan for rehearsals of the CBS radio program Back Where I Come From, produced by Alan Lomax and Nicholas Ray, and frequented the New York Public Library and museums. She moved to New York City after graduation. While living here in the early and mid-1940s she became a key member of the Almanac Singers, worked in the music department of the Office of War Information, and married fellow Almanac Singer Baldwin “Butch” Hawes.

In 1947 Bess moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Butch and Corey, the first of her three children, who was followed by Naomi and Nick. She taught music to adults whom she met as fellow parents at a nursery school and wrote songs with fellow Progressive Party members. One of these songs, “Charley on the MTA,” written with Jacqueline Steiner, was about a subway passenger trapped on the train because he didn’t bring enough money to pay the fare, collected after exiting the transit system because of an irritatingly complicated, recently instituted procedure. The song became a hit in its diluted Kingston Trio version in 1959. Bess relocated to California in 1952. She began to publish academic articles about folklore and taught at California State University at Northridge for many years. In 1970 she received her M.A. degree from the University of California at Berkeley, studying under Alan Dundes. Her master’s thesis was a definitive study of a song all of us have sung so many times, “Happy Birthday to You.”

Bess’s work at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife began when she directed a program on California traditions. She then became assistant director for programs for the Bicentennial Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and she stayed in Washington to direct the NEA’s Folk Arts Program (later renamed the Folk and Traditional Arts Program) until her retirement in 1992. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Singer, songwriter, cultural leader, administrator, teacher, and scholar, Bess was a remarkably versatile and accomplished person. She had a strong moral compass, reminding us through both advice and personal example about our primary responsibilities to the artists and communities that sustain traditions. Her approach to folklore was beautifully epitomized in Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. Written in collaboration with the outstanding Georgia Sea Island singer Bessie Jones, this book related Jones’s knowledge as a tradition bearer, a student of the tradition, and as a dynamic force in maintaining local children’s folklore traditions. “Mrs. Jones,” we learn, “does not accept tradition uncritically. She looks at procedures with the thoughtful and analytical eye of an educator; she is concerned, ultimately, with results. For this reason, though she is a tradition carrier, she does not hesitate to say when she thinks the ‘old peoples’ were wrong” (1972, 5). Step It Down was at once a pioneering work of collaborative scholarship, a collection of an important corpus of children’s folklore, an analysis of these traditions based on Bess’s own scholarly interests in children’s folklore, and a vehicle for teaching people to practice these traditions. It erased the boundaries between academic and applied scholarship and honored Bessie Jones as a scholar in her own right.

Often when one would talk to Bess she would take a deep breath and think for a moment after a slightly audible sigh. Maybe you can hear my own sigh now, in sorrow for her passing and wistfulness at how much more there is to say about this remarkable woman.



 









Robert Baron directs the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) in New York City.



Singer, songwriter, cultural leader, administrator, teacher, and scholar, Bess was a remarkably versatile and accomplished person. She had a strong moral compass, reminding us through both advice and personal example about our primary responsibilities to the artists and communities that sustain traditions.



REFERENCES
Hawes, Bess Lomax. 2008. Sing It Pretty: A Memoir. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Jones, Bessie, and Bess Lomax Hawes. 1972. Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage. New York: Harper & Row.



This article appeared in Voices Vol. 36, Fall-Winter 2010. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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