Bess Lomax Hawes

Though less well-known that her brother -- Alan Lomax -- and her father -- John Lomax, Bess Lomax Hawes has nonetheless made important contribution in the field of folk music as both a teacher and a performer. She was born on January 21, 1921, in Austin, Texas, and was exposed to traditional music from an early age because of her father's work as a collector of folk songs. Bess Lomax attended a boarding school after her mother's death in 1932, and enrolled in the University of Texas at the age of 15. A year later, she began assisting her father and brother with Our Singing Country, and also worked transcribing songs with Ruth Crawford Seeger. When Lomax's father remarried in the late 1930s, she traveled with the honeymooners to Europe. Although she had studied classical piano as a child, she bought a $15.00 guitar to keep her occupied during the trip. When the family returned to the United States, she enrolled in Bryn Mawr College and became involved in the folk scene in New York City. In the early 1940s, Hawes, along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and others, joined the Almanac Singers. Members jumped in and out of the group like a revolving door, and one of the members, Butch Hawes, became Bess Lomax's husband in 1942. Lomax Hawes also met Woody Guthrie, who taught her to play the mandolin. When World War II began and the Almanacs disbanded, Hawes worked in the Music Division of the Office of War Information, helping to prepare radio programs for broadcast in Europe and the Near East. After the war she and her husband moved to Boston, where she gave music lessons to children and wrote campaign songs for the progressive mayoral candidate, Walter F. O'Brien. It was during this period that she co-wrote the "M.T.A." song with Jacqueline Steiner, later to be popularized by the Kingston Trio. In the '50s, the couple relocated to the West Coast where Hawes continued her work as a music instructor. Besides housing traveling musicians and teaching, she performed at a number of coffee houses and clubs during the '50s and '60s. Hawes also appeared at a number of folk festivals, including Newport, Berkeley, and UCLA, and taught workshops. As Hawes' reputation as a teacher grew, she was invited to join the staff of the San Fernando Valley State College, where she became an associate professor in anthropology in 1968. She also taught at the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, and co-authored Step It Down -- a book about African-American children's games -- with Bessie Jones. In the mid-1970s Hawes joined the Division of Performing Arts staff at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr., All Music Guide.

Bess Lomax Hawes died in Oregon on November 27, 2009, at the age of eighty-eight. From her post in the NEA she created ways to honor the nation’s folk and traditional arts and to increase public awareness and appreciation of them. In a video interview Bess Hawes talks about her role in developing the field of public folklore. Portions of her recent memoir Sing It Pretty can be read on line, as can a discussion of The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes. Among the many tributes to her already posted on the internet are ones by Peter Dreier and Jeff Titon that will give readers a glimpse of her dedication, wisdom, and humanity.