Bess Lomax Hawes, Musical Folklorist, Dies She was part of a folk dynasty that included father John Lomax and brother Alan Lomax. But not only was she a musician and teacher: Her tenure at the National Endowment for the Arts helped to increase federal funding for traditional music across the U.S.
NPR logo

Bess Lomax Hawes, Musical Folklorist, Dies

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121122177/121140263" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Bess Lomax Hawes, Musical Folklorist, Dies

Bess Lomax Hawes, Musical Folklorist, Dies

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121122177/121140263" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Finally today, a look at the legacy of Bess Lomax Hawes. She died last week at the age of 88. Bess Lomax Hawes left an indelible mark on the cultural scene in this country as a musician, a teacher and head of the folk arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts.

NPR's David Gura has this remembrance.

DAVID GURA: Bess Lomax Hawes was part of a folk dynasty. Her father was John Lomax, who traveled across the American South collecting traditional music. Her brother, Alan, made thousands of recordings in the United States and abroad.

Folklore was the Lomax family business, and she followed in their footsteps.

Mr. BILL IVEY (National Endowment of the Arts): Despite their importance, I think in some ways, Bess, although she never would have thought this about herself, I think she may be the most influential of all the Lomaxes.

GURA: Bill Ivey worked with Bess Lomax Hawes at the National Endowment for the Arts. In the 1970s, she directed the folk arts program at the NEA. Hawes established the National Heritage Fellowships for artists and musicians, which awarded hundreds of grants. She grew up in Texas and, after college, moved to New York City, where she joined The Almanac Singers, a band with a rotating cast of great musicians: Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Mr. PETE SEEGER (Musician): We were a very loose group. Woody used to say we were the only group he was in that rehearsed on the stage.

(Soundbite of music)

THE ALMANAC SINGERS (Singers): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

GURA: According to Seeger, Bess Hawes was a skilled musician and became a good songwriter, weaving together traditional music with her popular front politics.

Mr. SEEGER: She was up in Boston, and she was going to write a song in support of the Progressive Party candidate for mayor, and it was a very popular song.

(Soundbite of song, "MTA")

THE KINGSTON TRIO (Music Group): (Singing) Well, let me tell you of the story of the man named Charley on a tragic and fateful day. He put 10 cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family, went to ride on the MTA.

GURA: The Kingston Trio took that song, which Hawes co-wrote with Jacqueline Steiner, changed a few lines and spun it into a top-20 hit.

(Soundbite of song, "MTA")

THE KINGSTON TRIO: (Singing) He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston. He's the man who never returned.

GURA: Pete Seeger says that Bess Hawes was also a great teacher. He remembers how she taught huge groups in her California home. According to Seeger, Hawes said:

Mr. SEEGER: I'll put all the banjo pickers in one room, and I'll put the beginning guitar pickers in another room, and the advanced guitar pickers, I'll put in another bedroom, and then we'll all get together and play what we've learned for each other.

GURA: The founders of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago used her teaching technique there. John Szwed, a Lomax biographer who worked with Bess Hawes, says she applied the same approach to politicians as she did to her students.

Mr. JOHN SZWED (Biographer): When she dealt with Congress, I know this for sure, that she dealt with them as neighbors or people she'd known all her life, and if she knew them even slightly, they'd be called honey or whatever in a kind of motherly way. And it was very hard to argue with her.

GURA: Thanks to her, Bill Ivey, who went on to head the NEA, says:

Mr. IVEY: There will never be a time when there's an effort to push the folk arts aside in preference to some other priorities.

GURA: In 1993, Bess Lomax Hawes was awarded the National Medal of Arts. She died last Friday of complications from a stroke. She was 88 years old.

David Gura, NPR News.

RAZ: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for tuning in, and have a great week.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.