Bess Lomax Hawes
in the 1960s
in the 1960s
Background information
Born(1921-01-21)January 21, 1921
Austin, Texas, U.S.
DiedNovember 27, 2009(2009-11-27) (aged 88)
Portland, Oregon, U.S.

Bess Lomax Hawes (January 21, 1921 – November 27, 2009) was an American folk musician, folklorist, and researcher. She was the daughter of John Avery Lomax and Bess Bauman-Brown Lomax, and the sister of Alan Lomax and John Lomax Jr.

Early life and education

Born in Austin, Texas, Bess grew up learning folk music from a very early age, since her father, a former English professor and twice president of the American Folklore Society, was Honorary Curator of American folk song at the Library of Congress from 1935 to 1948. As a child, she excelled at classical piano, under the tutelage of her mother, and later she learned to play the guitar.

She entered the University of Texas at fifteen and the following year assisted her father, John A.; her brother, Alan Lomax; and modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger with their book, Our Singing Country (1941). She graduated from Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia with a degree in sociology. Later, in the 1960s, she was among the first group of students to receive an M.A. in folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, under the guidance of professor Alan Dundes.

Career in music and folk arts

In the early 1940s she moved to New York City, where she was active on the folk scene. She was an on-and-off member of the Almanac Singers; she and a fellow Almanac singer, Baldwin "Butch" Hawes, an artist, were married in 1943.[1] Another Almanac member, Woody Guthrie, taught her mandolin.

During World War II Bess Lomax Hawes worked for the Office of War Information preparing radio broadcasts for troops overseas. After the end of the war, she and her family moved to Boston; while there she wrote songs for Walter A. O'Brien's 1949 mayoral campaign including "M.T.A.," co-written with Jacqueline Steiner. The song became a hit for The Kingston Trio in 1959. While her children (Nicholas Hawes, Corey Hawes Denos, and Naomi Hawes Bishop) were attending 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 ... "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." Peter Dreier, "Remembering Bess Lomax Hawes", Huffington Post, Nov. 30, 2009.

In the 1950s she moved to California, where she 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 also played at local clubs as well as 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 and later head of the Anthropology Department at what is now Cal State Northridge. Her husband, Butch Hawes, died in 1971.

In 1975, Hawes accepted a position in administration at the Smithsonian Institution, where she was instrumental in organizing the Smithsonian's 1976 Bicentennial Festival of Traditional Folk Arts on the National Mall. In 1977, she was named first director of the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and created the National Heritage Fellowships, which recognize traditional artists and performers. During her tenure, funding for folks arts rose from about $100,000 to $4 million, and 50 state or territorial folk arts programs were set up:

"We're really honoring traditions," Mrs. Hawes told The Washington Post in 1983. "These individuals are the people who've been pushed up by the traditions, they're the lightning rods that we grab onto. It's extremely important for the psychic health and well-being of Americans to maintain all of these little regional distinctions, to establish a cultural pluralism. It's like my brother folklorist Alan Lomax wrote one time: if the cultural gray-out continues around the world, pretty soon there will be no place worth visiting ... and no particular reason to stay home, either." Patricia Sullivan, "Bess Lomax Hawes, 88, Championed folk arts as performer and NEA official".

She retired in 1992.

Bess Lomax Hawes was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina and the National Medal of Arts awarded in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. An NEA traditional arts award is named in her honor.

Her memoir, Sing It Pretty, was published by Illinois University Press in 2008.

Death and legacy

While a faculty member at California State University Northridge, Hawes compiled an extensive archive of folk songs that were gathered by her students in Los Angeles and abroad. The archive is held in the Special Collections and Archives section of CSUN's University Library.[2]

She died in November 2009, aged 88, following a stroke in Portland, Oregon.[3]




  1. ^ Butch Hawes, who had the condition all his life, was the author of "Arthritis Blues", a staple in the repertoire of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and featured on his 2006 album, I Stand Alone.
  2. ^ "Bess Lomax Hawes Student Folklore Collection, 1959-1975". Retrieved June 29, 2018.
  3. ^ Sisario, Ben, "Bess Lomax Hawes, Folklorist and Singer Who Co-Wrote 'M.T.A.,' Dies at 88", The New York Times, November 30, 2009 (print edition of December 2, 2009).