Mudcat Café message #2778015 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #125356   Message #2778015
Posted By: Desert Dancer
01-Dec-09 - 07:14 PM
Thread Name: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes 1921-2009)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
Bess Lomax Hawes, Folklorist and Singer Who Co-Wrote 'M.T.A.,' Dies at 88

New York Times, November 30, 2009

Bess Lomax Hawes, a folklorist, teacher and singer who helped write "M.T.A.," an enduring folk ditty about an unfortunate subway commuter that became a hit for the Kingston Trio in 1959, died on Friday in Portland, Ore. She was 88 and lived in Portland.

Her death was announced by her daughter Naomi Bishop.

As the youngest child of the song collector John A. Lomax, and a sister of the folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, Ms. Hawes was part of the premier family of American folk scholarship. She assisted her father in his research and had a distinguished career of her own, teaching anthropology and directing the folk arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts. In the 1940s she performed alongside Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie in the Almanac Singers, and she later taught the rudiments of folk guitar to generations of musicians.

Yet she is perhaps most famous for a song she considered mere electoral propaganda for hire. While living in Boston in 1949, Ms. Hawes and a fellow leftist folkie, Jacqueline Steiner, were asked to write campaign songs for the Progressive Party's mayoral candidate, Walter A. O'Brien Jr.

Ms. Hawes and Ms. Steiner seized on O'Brien's call to roll back a subway fare increase by the Massachusetts Transit Authority. They borrowed the tunes from two old folk songs, "The Ship That Never Returned" and "Wreck of the Old 97," and wrote new lyrics about a hapless Everycommuter named Charlie who rides the train endlessly because he can't pay the nickel exit fare.

"Charlie's wife goes down to the Scollay Square Station every day at quarter past 2," the song goes. "And through the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich as the train comes rumblin' through."

In 1957 the singer Will Holt recorded a version of it, but in that era of Red Scare blacklisting, the song's explicit endorsement of O'Brien drew complaints that it " 'glorified' a communist," according to a 2008 article by Peter Dreier and Jim Vrabel in the journal Dissent, and the song disappeared from the airwaves. When the clean-cut Kingston Trio recorded it two years later, they substituted a fictitious name, George O'Brien, and the song went to No. 15 on the pop chart.

"M.T.A.," sometimes called "Charlie on the M.T.A.," has been particularly revered in Boston, where in 2004 the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced the introduction of the automated CharlieCard.

Bess Brown Lomax was born on Jan. 21, 1921 in Austin, Tex., and joined the family business early. As a teenager she aided her father and brother in transcribing field recordings for their book "Our Singing Country" (1941), and her duties sometimes brought her to the front lines. In her 2008 memoir, "Sing It Pretty," she recalled being led into the depths of Angola state penitentiary in Louisiana to transcribe an inmate's song because her father lacked recording equipment. "Folkloring in those days was a family affair," she wrote.

In 1941 she graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in sociology and moved to New York, where she worked in the Office of War Information and performed with the Almanac Singers, often repurposing old tunes with topical protest lyrics. She married one of her bandmates, Baldwin Hawes (known as Butch), in 1942, and in Boston in the late 1940s she began to teach guitar to large groups. By 1952 she and her growing family had relocated to Southern California, where she continued to teach guitar and also joined the anthropology faculty at San Fernando Valley State College, now called California State University, Northridge.

After working on the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife in 1975 and 1976, she joined the National Endowment for the Arts, where she established the National Heritage Fellowships and a state folklorist program. She retired in 1992 and a year later was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton. In 2000 the endowment established the Bess Lomax Hawes Award, which recognizes scholars and arts advocates.

In addition to her daughter Naomi, of Portland, she is survived by a son, Nicholas Hawes, also of Portland; another daughter, Corey Denos of Bellingham, Wash.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.