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Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes 1921-2009)

28 Nov 09 - 11:30 AM (#2775559)
Subject: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

Just got this post from the California Traditional Music Society on Facebook: "We're so sad to hear that Bess Lomax Hawes passed away this morning. One of the pioneers of folklore, she was the daughter of John Lomax, sister of Alan. She created the NEA's folk arts program. She taught at CSUN starting back when it was San Fernando Valley State College and also lived here in SoCal after her time ..."

~ Becky in Tucson

28 Nov 09 - 11:34 AM (#2775560)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

Sorry, didn't get the whole post there:

"We're so sad to hear that Bess Lomax Hawes passed away this morning. One of the pioneers of folklore, she was the daughter of John Lomax, sister of Alan. She created the NEA's folk arts program. She taught at CSUN starting back when it was San Fernando Valley State College and also lived here in SoCal after her time at the NEA. Always generous with her time, creative to the end, she will be missed by so many."

From Wikipedia:

Bess Lomax Hawes (born January 21, 1921) is an American folk musician and researcher. She is the daughter of John Lomax and the sister of Alan Lomax.

Born in Austin, Texas, Bess grew up learning folk music from a very early age due to her father, a noted scholar of American folk music. She entered the University of Texas at fifteen, and the following year assisted her family and Ruth Crawford Seeger with the Our Singing Country project. She learned to play guitar and then attended Bryn Mawr College; in the early 1940s she moved to New York City and became active on the folk scene there. She was an on-and-off member of the Almanac Singers; another member, Butch Hawes, married her in 1942. While she was a member of the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie taught her mandolin.

During World War II Hawes worked for the Office of War Information preparing radio broadcasts for troops overseas. After the end of the war, Hawes and family moved to Boston; while there she wrote campaign songs for Walter A. O'Brien and co-wrote (with Jacqueline Steiner) "M.T.A.," a hit for the Kingston Trio. In the 1950s she moved to California and taught, also performing in local clubs; she also began playing at some of the larger folk festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Berkeley Folk Festival. In 1968 she became associate professor of anthropology at San Fernando Valley State College. In the 1970s she accepted a position at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1977, she became the first director of the Folk & Traditional Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts from which she retired in 1996. Her memoir, Sing It Pretty, was published by Illinois University Press.

28 Nov 09 - 11:49 AM (#2775567)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Charley Noble

Sad, indeed, to lose another mainstay of the folk music world. She certainly had a key role in making that world larger.

Charley Noble

28 Nov 09 - 11:51 AM (#2775568)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

The Smithsonian Folklife Center has a nice page on her (pre-obit), here.

University of Illinois Press page on her memoir, Sing It Pretty.

The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes, also here: Georgia Sea Island Singers (1964, 14 min), Buckdancer (1965, 6 min), Pizza Pizza Daddy-O (1967, 18 min), Say Old Man - Can You Play The Fiddle? (1970, 20 min) ($24.95 on DVD)

She also collaborated with Bessie Jones in her writing of Step It Down, a wonderful compilation of the singing games of the Georgia Sea Islanders.

28 Nov 09 - 01:55 PM (#2775639)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: open mike

there was a PBS documentary with the Lomaxes in it
which i saw earlier this year.
it is mostly about Alan Lomax, but Bess may be included in it.

Thanks to her work in music and public culture, here is the last
paragraph of the Smithsonian write up:

Following her retirement, Bess was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton, gave the Charles Seeger Lecture at the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and has continued to speak and consult internationally on issues of folklore, public policy, and cultural continuity.

28 Nov 09 - 02:05 PM (#2775649)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

Pizza Pizza Daddy-O via

28 Nov 09 - 02:09 PM (#2775652)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Sandy Mc Lean

I often still sing "Charlie on the MTA"
Thanks Bess for a great song! RIP!

28 Nov 09 - 04:11 PM (#2775734)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Nancy King

Another folk icon gone...

28 Nov 09 - 06:18 PM (#2775797)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Don Firth

I'm very sorry to hear this.

I had the honor of meeting Bess Hawes at the 1964 Berkeley Folk Festival. I had been teaching folk guitar classes (groups of about ten) for about four years. She was conducting a workshop in teaching guitar in classes, which she had been doing for years—groups of as many as 60!

Fortunately, I was on the right track, but taking in her workshop and then talking with her afterwards helped me to refine my teaching quite a bit.

The last time I saw her was just a few nights ago on television. PBS's "American Masters" has a show about Woody Guthrie. I didn't know about it until about fifteen minutes before the show came on. Bess Hawes (looking a bit greyer than when I had met her 45 years ago) had a number of comments and stories about Guthrie.

She was a great lady.

Don Firth

28 Nov 09 - 07:15 PM (#2775820)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Stringsinger

Bess Hawes did more for the preservation and enhancement of folk music than many people realize. She didn't get all the credit she was due. She may have been the first person to do group classes in folk music in the country with guitars, banjos, autoharps, fiddles etc. If it wasn't for her inspiration, there would not be the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago today. She was remarkable in her duties as the head of the Folklore Division of the NEA.

She has written some important books on folk music. "Step It Down" with Bessie Jones and the singing of the Georgia Sea Islands is one of them. It's too bad people didn't get
to know this lady. She was smart, well-educated, compassionate and deeply involved with folk music and the singers and players. If it weren't for the Lomaxes there would have never been a folk revival in the US. She had a broad background in music and brought to her career a breadth of sophistication that enabled her to determine the value of indigenous music and culture. She was a key element in the revival and preservation of American folk music. I wish more people could have known about what she did.

I was fortunate to sit at her feet observing her folk music group classes and watching an unusual and unique teaching approach to music unfold. When I left for Chicago, I brought what Bess had taught with me. It was the foundation of what the Old Town School of Folk Music is today. Her legacy lives on through many people who were privileged to know and appreciate her good work.

Frank Hamilton

28 Nov 09 - 07:34 PM (#2775823)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Mark Ross

I got to meet her at the '76 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
A great lady.

Mark Ross

28 Nov 09 - 07:57 PM (#2775833)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Bill H //\\

I will surely make mention of this on this Sunday's Traditions program ( and again on our year end program---sorry to hear the news.

Bill Hahn

29 Nov 09 - 04:32 AM (#2775931)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: GUEST,from tokyo,japan

today i know great bess hawes passing.
her's husband is the late butch hawes.

kiyohide kunizaki to tokyo folklore center

29 Nov 09 - 12:52 PM (#2776123)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Stringsinger

Looked for an obit in the NY Times. Couldn't find it.

People who do great important work are often overshadowed by shallow celebrity.

Bess contributed more to folk music than many performers who capitalized on it through their ego-centric appearances.

One thing for sure, the comments elicited by some Mudcatters show that Bess's contributions have been ignored. She and Alan fought for the recognition of traditional folk music in the face of imperial musical commercialism and consumerism. They knew what it was and knew what it wasn't. In a way, they defined it for us so that we could appreciate it from a cultural and aesthetic standpoint. Unfortunately, their voices have been silenced and the "new" breed of "folkie" would like to redefine it to suit their own agenda.

Sorry, but the Beatles and rock and roll are not folk music. They are manufactured in the same way that you manufacture any other product for sale. That is not to say that the product has no value. Folk music is not manufactured but an outgrowth of cultural experience and tradition. Bess and Alan showed us that.

Frank Hamilton

29 Nov 09 - 01:13 PM (#2776141)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: John on the Sunset Coast

Sorry to hear about her passing. Except, now, for Pete Seeger, that pretty much runs the table of the early 40s/WWII generation.

To Desert Dancer--I even remember when CSUN (California State University, Northridge for you out-of-towners) was established, and known as Los Angeles State College, San Fernando Valley Branch (or something reasonably close to that.)

29 Nov 09 - 01:28 PM (#2776150)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Stringsinger

It was known as Los Angeles State College, Northridge, not to be confused with Los Angeles Valley Junior College.

The dismissal of the early 40's/WWII generation of folk music exponents is premature.

It shows a narrowness of appreciation for the contributions of many who are today not recognized from that period. They are around but not as celebrities.

Folk music extends further than the revival that took place in the 40's emanating from the Left.

The reference to the 40's intimates that this is what constitutes the whole of folk music
and it isn't true.

29 Nov 09 - 01:52 PM (#2776167)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Don Firth

Like trying to equate newly manufactured furniture with fine antiques. The newly manufacture stuff may be perfectly good, but it remains to be seen how durable it will be. The fine antiques have a provenance, a history, and have given good service for generations.

The Lomaxes knew the difference.

People have been saying for centuries that folk music is dead, but somehow it seems to keep right on going. It's "popularity" with vast numbers of people waxes and wanes, but it will always be there.

Don Firth

29 Nov 09 - 02:58 PM (#2776204)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Sandy Mc Lean

Frank said "People who do great important work are often overshadowed by shallow celebrity."
As much as I love and respect the Mudcat I am amazed that there were many, many responses and posts to the Michael Jackson obituary thread while there seem to be so few here. On a forum such as this dedicated to folk music have so many forgotten the Lomaxes? I would hope not!

29 Nov 09 - 05:20 PM (#2776288)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Don Firth

I noted that too, Sandy.

I think that a lot of Mudcatters are sufficiently young that names like Lomax, Sandburg, Sharp, and other collectors and enthusiasts going even further back to include F. J. Child, Sir Walter Scott, Bishop Percy, et al., are denizens of some dim and distant past and vaguely unreal, like the gods of Mount Olympus. Had it not been for those who went before, there would have been no Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Limeliters, and other such pop groups that some of the youngsters (!??) regard as "pioneers." Something about standing on the shoulders of giants?

Oh, the callowness of youth!

I look back on the Berkeley Folk Festivals with real gratitude for providing me with an opportunity to meet and talk with people like Bess Hawes, Alan Lomax, Charles Seeger, and a host of both academicians and performers who perpetuated the songs. And there are people today. Not all of them sing to arena-sized crowds or have stacks of CDs out, but they're there.

Don Firth

30 Nov 09 - 11:15 AM (#2776779)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: John on the Sunset Coast

The Los Angeles Times has a nice obit about Hawes. It's probably available online.

30 Nov 09 - 11:36 AM (#2776801)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

The Los Angeles Times obituary:
Bess Lomax Hawes dies at 88; musician and folklorist
She also directed folk and traditional arts programs at the National Endowment for the Arts and served as head of the anthropology department at what is now Cal State Northridge.

By Claire Noland
November 30, 2009

Bess Lomax Hawes, a musician and folklorist who tapped into the legacy of her influential family of archivists and became a prominent anthropologist at what is now Cal State Northridge, has died. She was 88.

Hawes, who directed folk and traditional arts programs at the National Endowment for the Arts from 1977 to 1992, died of natural causes Friday in Portland, Ore., where she had been living the last two years, her daughter Naomi Bishop said.

CSUN houses the Bess Lomax Hawes Student Folklore Archive, a collection of student research projects that Hawes oversaw. She was particularly interested in children's folklore; among her documentary films is "Pizza Pizza Daddy-O," showing black schoolgirls singing and clapping on a Pacoima playground in 1967. With Bessie Jones she made another film, "Georgia Sea Island Singers," and they co-wrote "Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage" (1972).

"To me, it's another way of getting to the human mystery -- why people behave the way they do," Hawes said in a 2000 Times interview in explaining the value of studying folklore.

Steeped in folk music from birth, she was the youngest child of John A. Lomax and Bess Bauman Brown. Born Jan. 21, 1921, in Austin, Texas, she was home-schooled by her mother, who also taught her to play piano. Her father and her brother, Alan Lomax, collected seminal field recordings of traditional songs that had been sung by cowboys, prisoners and slaves.

After her mother died in 1931, the family moved to Washington, D.C., and Hawes assisted her father's pioneering research compiling the folk song archive at the Library of Congress.

She graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology from Bryn Mawr College in 1941 and worked during World War II as a radio programmer for the Office of War Information. She was also one of a rotating crew of vocalists in the Almanac Singers folk ensemble, along with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and her future husband, Baldwin "Butch" Hawes.

The couple married in 1943 and moved to Cambridge, Mass., where Hawes co-wrote the folk song "M.T.A." that later became a hit for the Kingston Trio.

She also began a successful career as a music instructor.

"Everyone wanted to sing and play guitar like Bobby Dylan," Hawes told the Daily News in 2002. "Folk music was a real postwar phenomenon. Everyone had either been tromped over or was out tromping over someone else during the war, and people were anxious to get back a sense of their roots."

In 1952 Hawes and her husband, an artist, moved to California and settled with their children in Topanga Canyon, immersing themselves in the bohemian community anchored by actor Will Geer.

Besides performing in coffeehouses and at music festivals, Hawes taught guitar, banjo, mandolin and folk singing through UCLA Extension courses, at the Idyllwild summer arts program and, starting in 1963, at San Fernando Valley State College. She expanded her instruction to folklore, folk music and ethnomusicology and, after receiving a master's in folklore from UC Berkeley studying under Alan Dundes, became head of the anthropology department at what is now CSUN.

Hawes began shifting from teacher to arts administrator in 1975 when she led a group of folk music and arts performers from California in a program on the National Mall presented by the Smithsonian Institution. The next year she participated in a bicentennial event staged by the Smithsonian, and in 1977 she joined the NEA.

She directed the national arts agency's folk and traditional arts program and created the agency's National Heritage Fellowships, which recognize traditional artists and performers from across the country. She retired in 1992 and the next year was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton.

To Hawes, folk art was "an identifier . . . a public statement of what a hell of a fine thing it is to be a Lithuanian or a Greek or a Comanche Indian . . . so that you feel good and people looking at the work will say, 'That's good,' or 'That's beautiful,' or 'That's different.' "

All three of Hawes' children followed in her footsteps professionally. Her daughter Naomi Bishop of Portland, Ore., is a retired CSUN anthropology professor; another daughter, Corey Denos of Bellingham, Wash., is a teacher; and her son, Nicholas Hawes of Portland, Ore., is a folk musician.

Besides her children, Hawes is survived by six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1971.

Services will be private.

30 Nov 09 - 11:44 AM (#2776806)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Mark Clark

I never got to meet Bess Lomax Hawes but I knew of and benefitted from many of her contributions. Her passing leaves the world a poorer place.

      - Mark

30 Nov 09 - 07:55 PM (#2777161)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Stringsinger

The Huffington Post
NOVEMBER 30, 2009

This is the print preview: Back to normal view »
Peter DreierPeter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College
Posted: November 30, 2009 03:06 AM
Remembering Bess Lomax Hawes

Bess Lomax Hawes, who died Friday at 88, taught thousands of people how to play the guitar. She didn't have a video, or a TV show, or a website, or even an instructional manual. She had a technique.

In the late 1940s, she and her husband Butch were living in the Boston area and sent their three children to a cooperative nursery school organized by graduate students at MIT and Harvard. She frequently brought her guitar to the school to perform for the students. Some of the parents, mostly the mothers, asked her to teach them how to play guitar, banjo and mandolin. Bess agreed to charge them one dollar each for each lesson, which lasted several hours, what she called "a whole evening." She would keep 50 cents for herself to pay for a babysitter and she'd donate the other 50 cents to the nursery school. Word soon spread, and others began to join her classes.

That was how Bess developed her technique for teaching guitar to large groups of people simultaneously, a method for which she became well-known, and which accounts for the fact that over the years, especially after she moved to Los Angeles in 1951, she was able to teach so many people to play guitar. Many of her students, in turn, became guitar teachers, spreading her method - and her enthusiasm for music - which helped catalyze the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

Bess figured, she told me in an interview two years ago, that "students learning guitar individually can get intimidated because they can hear their own mistakes. In a group, the students feel bolder about playing, take more risks, enjoy it more, and feel part of something bigger, which sounds better, anyway."

Throughout her life, Bess was always involved in "something bigger," typically spreading appreciation for music, and progressive politics, through her guitar lessons, her participation in the Almanac Singers, her involvement with the post-war Progressive Party, her folklore and anthropology classes at San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State-Northridge), her documentary films about folk culture, and her work organizing folklore festivals for the Smithsonian Institute and creating the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts (which she directed from 1977 to 1992).

In 1993, President Bill Clinton awarded Bess the National Medal of the Arts at a reception at the White House. In 1995, the University of North Carolina awarded her an honorary doctorate for her lifetime accomplishments. In 2000, the NEA created the Bess Lomax Hawes Award, which honors people who make major contributions to folk and traditional arts.

The folk music revival that began in the late 1950s, and the recent growing interest in traditional American "roots" music -- reflected in the popularity of such recent films as O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Songcatcher (2000), the recent the re-release of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and the recent celebrations of Pete Seeger in concerts, albums, and documentary film -- owes a great deal to Bess' pioneering efforts.

Born in 1921, Bess' life in music continued a distinguished family tradition. Her father, musicologist John Lomax, worked at several universities in Texas before moving to Washington, D.C. , where he became the curator of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. She spent her early years in Texas, learning classical piano and enrolling at the University of Texas at age 15. As a teenager, Bess worked with her father and brother Alan (who also became a famous musicologist) on their pioneering collection of American folk music, Our Singing Country (eventually published in 1941), which was the first of several important song collections produced by the father and son. Bess helped collect and transcribe prison songs, cowboy ballads, and many other songs.

In 1938, she traveled to Europe with her father and his second wife on their honeymoon. She bought a $15 guitar to keep her occupied during the trip, taught herself to play, and learned songs in several European languages.

After returning from Europe, Bess attended Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. While at Bryn Mawr, she would occasionally travel to New York and perform with the Almanac Singers. After she graduated from college in 1941, she moved to New York, got a job at the New York Public Library and later with the Office of War Information, preparing radio broadcasts for troops overseas, including music that represented the variety of American culture. She moved into the Almanacs' communal apartment - a highly usual arrangement at the time. She was often the only Almanac with a steady job, which -- along with regular "hootenanny" song parties -- helped pay the rent.

Before there was The Weavers, or Peter, Paul and Mary, there was The Almanac Singers. Formed in 1941, the Almanacs drew on traditional songs, and wrote their own songs, often about current events, to advance the cause of progressive groups, including labor unions. Besides Bess, the Almanacs included Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell, as well as a constantly revolving group of others (including Woody Guthrie) who performed for various left-wing groups. The Almanacs put out several records of topical songs, and flirted with mainstream success, but they were always too ambivalent about commercialism and compromise to gain a foothold in popular culture. With the Almanacs, Bess recorded the albums Talking Union and Citizen CIO and sang on the Folkways Records albums Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs and Spanish Civil War. While living in New York she met (and eventually married) Baldwin "Butch" Hawes, an illustrator who occasionally sang with the Almanacs.

Not only did Bess know more folk songs than anyone else, but when the Almanacs needed songs for union rallies and picket lines, to dramatize particular issues, or to plug political candidates, she could write new songs on short notice --"sometimes on the spot," she recalled. These "new" songs were essentially parodies of old ones, lyrics written for the specific occasion modeled after and set to traditional tunes.

In April 2007, I visited Bess, then 86, in her small room in a group home for seniors in the Woodland Hills area of Los Angeles. She sat in a cushioned chair and had an oxygen tank, with tubes in her nose, to help her breathe. She had no musical instruments in the room because, she explained, she could no long play because of arthritis in her hands. But she had a CD player and used it frequently. She told me she was better at remembering songs than remembering names, and that was evident during the two-hour interview.

I had come to talk with Bess about the song for which she is most famous - "MTA," typically known as "Charlie and the MTA" -- the ballad about a "man named Charlie" doomed to "ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston" and become "the man who never returned."

Bess recalled the song's history, filling in an important part of its evolution that was missing from previous accounts. The Almanac Singers were invited to perform at a rally for the Transport Workers Union on May 21, 1941 at Madison Square Garden. The group had to come up with songs to stir the crowd and get them singing. They wrote several songs for the occasion, including one called "The Train That Never Returned," which was based on two earlier songs -- "The Ship That Never Returned" (written in 1865) and "The Wreck of the Old 97" (resurrected and popularized in 1924). In the Almanacs' 1941 version, a group of crooked politicians who were trying to crush the transit workers union board a "yellow scab train." The Almanacs distributed the lyrics to the 20,000 people at the rally.

The song was never recorded, and perhaps never again sung in public, but 66 years later, Bess remembered the lyrics and music as though she'd sung them the day before. She removed the tubes from her nose, closed her eyes, looked up, and began singing:

"Let me tell you the story of some politicians
Who road on a yellow scab train.
On a Monday morning, they left the station
And they never were seen again.
Did they ever return?
No, they never returned..."

In 1949, Walter O'Brien Jr., a left-wing union organizer who was running for Mayor of Boston on the Progressive Party ticket, asked Bess to write some songs for his long-shot campaign. One of the central planks of O'Brien's platform was a call for rolling back a new subway fare increase by the Massachusetts Transit Authority (MTA). To help her, Bess turned for help to some of the people who came by her house on Sunday nights for informal song swaps, including Jacqueline Steiner.

Bess remembered the song that the Almanacs had sung at Madison Square Garden eight years earlier and suggested reworking it for the O'Brien campaign.

"I knew that it was a good song that groups of people could sing together," Hawes recalled, explaining that in those days she and others would sometimes squeeze together with their instruments on the platform on top of the sound truck and sing at campaign stops.

Steiner wrote most of the "MTA" lyrics, but Bess added what proved to be the song's most memorable verse, the one in which Charlie's wife brings him a sandwich every day, handing it to him through an open window "while the train goes rumbling through." As Steiner explained in an interview several years ago, "Without that verse, the song wouldn't have been so popular." To this day, she said, people can't resist asking why Charlie's wife didn't just hand her husband a nickel, the extra fare needed to get off the train.

The duo ended the song with a verse that made sure Boston voters knew which of the mayoral candidate was on their side: "Vote for Walter A. O'Brien/and fight the fare increase/Get poor Charlie off that MTA!"

The song didn't help O'Brien much, since he finished dead last in the election. But in 1959, the Kingston Trio recorded "MTA." The single made it to #15 on the Billboard chart, and their album that included "MTA," At Large, reached #1 on the pop charts and stayed on the charts for 118 weeks.

The song has become a part of American culture, recorded by many other performers, reprinted in myriad songbooks, and sung at countless summer camps. There are now at least fifty versions of the song on YouTube by professional and amateur performers, including versions from Ireland and Denmark. In 1996, the conservative magazine, National Review, included "M.T.A." in its tongue-in-cheek list of the 100 "most conservative rock songs" because of its opposition to"a burdensome tax on the population in the form of a subway fare increase." In 2007, the Boston Pops performed "MTA" as part of its annual July 4 concert on the Esplanade. With a different cast of performers, the Kingston Trio continues to tour, and "MTA" is one of their most-requested songs.

Hawes never anticipated that the "MTA" song would outlast O'Brien's campaign. She considered the song a "throwaway" -- one of many topical songs written for a particular political cause at a particular moment in time. She was "totally stunned," she said, when she learned that the song had become a big hit for the Kingston Trio. Hawes found it ironic not only that the song endured, but also that she continued to receive royalty checks - but only because a friend recommended that she and Steiner copyright the song almost a decade after they wrote it.

Bess told me that the ongoing popularity of the "MTA" illustrated a lesson she'd learned from the Bible: "If you cast your bread upon the waters, it shall be returned to you a thousand fold."

The "MTA" song is only a tiny part of Bess' legacy. She devoted only two pages of her wonderful memoir, Sing It Pretty (University of Illinois Press, 2008), to the song.

Bess dedicated her life to preserving traditional American cultures and spreading the gospel of folk music and folk arts. During the folk music revival, Bess - who played the banjo, piano, guitar and mandolin -- occasionally performed at folk festivals and coffeehouses, but she preferred teaching. "I never felt like a performance singer, by temperament," she said.

Indeed, she became one of the most influential folklore teachers of the past half century - through her courses, workshops, films, books, academic papers, and her work at the Smithsonian and the NEA.

Bess' enthusiasm for folk music was contagious. Steiner, a classically trained musician, found her way to Hawes's Sunday folk-song gatherings in Cambridge through radical political circles. At one get-together, she heard Hawes sing the "Kentucky Moonshine Song." "That converted me," recalled Steiner years later. "I'd been a snob about folk music before that." Forever linked with Bess through their coauthorship of the "MTA" song, Steiner became an accomplished folksinger and continues to perform.

Bess taught popular courses on folklore and ethnomusicology at San Fernando Valley State from 1964 through 1970. During those years she also made four documentary films -- Georgia Sea Island Singers, Buckdancer, Pizza Pizza Daddy-O, and Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle. With Bessie Jones, she co-authored a book about African-American children's games, Step It Down. She served as president of the California Folklore Society and vice president of the American Folklore Society, and spoke frequently at conferences.

In 1975, Bess was lured to Washington, D.C. to help organize the Smithsonian Institution's summer-long Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife in 1976, which brought thousands of artists to participate in the nation's 200th birthday party. When that gig was completed, the NEA asked her to join the agency as director of its Folk Arts Program. During her 15-year stint at NEA, funding for the Folk Arts Program increased from about $100,000 to over $4 million, and the staff grew from one to six. She helped create state-based folk arts programs and, by doing so, built a network of folk arts advocates around the country.

At the NEA, Bess started the Heritage Fellowships program to distribute grants to little-known weavers, woodcarvers, songwriters, and other craftspersons and artists whose work might otherwise be ignored. "Each year," Hawes explained at its inception, "we will greet, salute, and honor just a few examples of the dazzling array of artistic traditions we have inherited throughout our nation's fortunate history."

The program she started has continued and over the years has honored such artists as wood carver George Lopez, Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa, Irish-American singer Joe Heaney, North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell, cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin, Georgia Sea Island song leader Bessie Jones, blues artists Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, shape note singer Hugh McGraw, saddlemaker Duff Severe, ornamental ironworker Philip Simmons of South Carolina, bluegrass founding father Bill Monroe, Appalachian singer Hazel Dickens, Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks, conjunto accordionist and composer Marcisco Martinez, marionettist Miguel "Mike" Manteo, Zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier, Eskimo maskmaker, dancer and singer Paul Tiulana, French-American fiddler Simon St. Pierre of Maine, Hawaiian quilter Meali'i Kalama, Irish musician Mick Moloney, Laotian weaver Bounxou Chanthraphone from Minnesota, the African American gospel quartet Dixie Hummingbirds, Afro-Cuban drummer Felipe Garcia Villamil from Los Angeles, Puerto Rican hammock weaver Jose Gonzalez, Lindy Hop dancer and choreographer Frankie Manning from New York, and many others.

The NEA's annual Bess Lomax Hawes Award recognizes an individual who has made a significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage. Mike Seeger, the musician and cultural scholar, received this year's award shortly before his death in August. Like Bess, Seeger came from a family of folklorists, and shared Bess' love for folk music, particularly Appalachian tunes.

Bess is survived by her three children -- teacher Corey Denos of Bellingham, Wash., anthropologist Naomi Bishop, and folklorist and musician Nicholas Hawes, both of Portland, Oregon -- and by six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband Butch died in 1971.

Throughout her life, Bess was a political radical who fought for a better future, but who also understood the importance of preserving the many cultural traditions of America's past. During the post-World War 2 Red Scare, Bess was fired from her government job and harassed by FBI agents, but she never succumbed to cynicism or stopped believing that music could be a force for social change and human understanding.

"I have always had the unshakable belief that every single human being has some knowledge of important elements of beauty and substance," Bess wrote at the end of Sing It Pretty, "whether everybody else knows them or not."

Peter Dreier is professor of Politics, and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program, at Occidental College.

Books By Peter Dreier

01 Dec 09 - 04:12 PM (#2777847)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: GUEST,Guest

Here is the NY Times obituary for Bess Hawes

Bess Hawes obit

01 Dec 09 - 05:17 PM (#2777907)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Rex

I am sorry to learn another great keeper of the songs is gone. I was meeting last Spring with folks at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody about plans for a cowboy songs event for 2010. As 2010 is the centennial of John Lomax's first book, Cowboy Songs and Range Ballads, we were going to focus on his work. The BBHC was going to invite Bess. She's appeared there before. I let them know the sad news.


01 Dec 09 - 07:11 PM (#2778013)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

Ross Altman has written a tribute at, the L.A.-area online folk magazine.

~ Becky in Tucson

01 Dec 09 - 07:14 PM (#2778015)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

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.

01 Dec 09 - 09:59 PM (#2778072)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: GUEST,The Folk E

Best known song sold a million records and made folksingers out of a lot of people! The MTA was and is a great American folk song.

02 Dec 09 - 09:27 AM (#2778456)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: GUEST,from tokyo,japan

re: peter dreier and ross altman 's tribute

i can understand:
from the almanac singers to the weavers to peter,paul and mary.


kiyohide kunizaki at tokyo folklore center

02 Dec 09 - 10:27 AM (#2778494)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

In Ross Altman's tribute in at Folkworks, he links to a series of earlier articles from a lengthy interview with her. I thought I'd highlight that here: click.

~ Becky in Tucson

02 Dec 09 - 04:37 PM (#2778897)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Mark Ross

Here's another tribute;

Bess Hawes

Mark Ross

08 Dec 09 - 09:33 AM (#2783696)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: GUEST,from tokyo,japan



08 Dec 09 - 08:42 PM (#2784238)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: Desert Dancer

A clicky for the NPR story -- thanks, kiyohide.

~ Becky in Tucson

06 Jan 10 - 06:18 AM (#2804716)
Subject: RE: Obit: Bess Lomax Hawes (Nov. 28, 2009)
From: GUEST,addison

Obituary in today's Guardian, 6 January 2010.