Saturday, December 4, 2010

OBITUARY: Bess Lomax Hawes (2009)

Bess Lomax Hawes, 1921-2009

Obituary by John Pietaro

Portland, Oregon: Bess Lomax Hawes, a member of the esteemed Lomax family of folklorists and part of the seminal urban folk music group ‘the Almanac Singers’ died on November 27. She was 88 years old.

Ms. Lomax Hawes, born in Texas, began her journey into folk song through her father John Lomax’s important work of collecting rural musics throughout the US. The Lomaxes relocated to Washington DC during Bess’ teen years and her father, and soon after her brother Alan, began to work for the Library of Congress, chronicling the music of the nation and offering the young Ms. Lomax a visceral education into the power of culture.

She’d begun playing the guitar at 15 as a means to get through the long hours as she and her parents traveled Europe. Adapting to a wide array of music in various languages, Bess was able to develop both her repertoire of “peoples’ songs” and her guitar technique simultaneously. Within two years, she’d become an in-demand guitar teacher and to meet the needs of the many students seeking tutelage, Lomax created a curriculum for seminar-style lessons to teach large groups. This type of music education would serve her well in later years, particularly after she’d moved to the west coast.

But by 1940, Ms Lomax became further entrenched in folk song when she was recruited by her father and brother to help catalog material for a book entitled Our Singing Country. At this time, Woody Guthrie was brought to DC to record for the Library of Congress and Pete Seeger was now on staff for the season, cementing their relationship. Bess’ brother Alan Lomax was now seen as the major link among this new breed of radical folksingers which grew to include Guthrie, Leadbelly, Aunt Mollie Jackson and others. He and Leftist actor Will Geer organized a New York event to benefit migrant workers, “A Grapes of Wrath Evening” which featured the growing stable of this first generation of folk revivalists; Bess Lomax a stood among those performers.

Soon after, Seeger, Lee Hays and playwright Millard Lampell formed the nexus of the Almanac Singers, the first urban folk ensemble. The group performed traditional music presented with new, revolutionary lyrics, and incorporated into their sets older songs of dissent and their own topical compositions, too. Based in a communal living space in Greenwich Village, the Almanac Singers performed throughout 1940 and ’41 for Communist Party functions, May Day parades and radical cabarets. To the Almanacs’ surprise, the group was courted by the William Morris Agency, Decca Records and even the Rainbow Room as they toured the sites of countless CIO organizing campaigns.

By 1941, the group had expanded to include Bess Lomax, who’d graduated from Bryn Mawr College and moved into the group’s townhouse, often supplying the only regular income to their communal fund. But Bess was also seen as an important musical force, offering strong guitar playing, harmony vocals and an innate understanding of the folk process. Another new member, the illustrator Butch Hawes, would become Bess’ husband soon after; their union would produce three children over the years. Photos in this period depict a youthful but intense coalition of performers brandishing guitars and banjos as weapons of this cultural front, with Lomax Hawes looking younger, perhaps more vital, than the rest. Bess, with the Almanacs, recorded several historically powerful albums for the independent Keynote label including 1941’s ‘Talking Union’ , which produced the legendary versions of “Union Maid” and “Which Side Are You On?”, and the post-Pearl Harbor ‘Dear Mr. President’ which featured the stirring anti-fascist theme “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave”. She was also present for the sessions which produced the ‘Citizen CIO’ wartime collection, select Guthrie recordings and an important set of Spanish Civil War songs, among others.

Regardless of their strong anti-fascist output, the Almanac Singers were cited in the fury of reactionary suspicion and were branded as “Moscow agents” due to their earlier anti-war music of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. All offers for national radio broadcasts and record contracts were now off the table. Blacklisted, their engagements became scarce and the group fell apart. Worse, Bess lost her government job and in the post-war years would experience harassment by the FBI and various Rightist organizations. By 1950, Bess and songwriter Jackie Steiner would compose “The MTA Song” for a Boston mayoral candidate running on the Progressive Party line and this reflected Lomax Hawes’ continued radical leanings. Ironically, it became a major hit for the Kingston Trio in ’59; this group served as the portal for many of the next generation to discover the kind of folk singing the Almanacs had brought to wider attention, though the latter ensemble rarely if ever featured the protest core which was a staple of the Almanac Singers.

Later, Bess would move to the west coast where she’d teach American folklore in colleges before serving, for many years, as director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk Arts Program. In 1993, a year after here retirement, Lomax Hawes was granted the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton for her work on behalf of American culture. In her latter years, Lomax Hawes continued speaking about folklore, ethnomusicology and the power of folk music as a force for social change. She is survived by her three children and six grandchildren.

-Published in ‘Political Affairs’ online, December 2009-

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