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AFC acquires the papers of folk arts pioneer Bess Lomax Hawes

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Bess Lomax Hawes and Alan Lomax sitting, laughing
Bess Lomax Hawes and Alan Lomax, New York City, 1975. From the Alan Lomax Collection (AFC2004/004) at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Used courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity. Photographer: Ralph Rinzler.

The following is a guest post from Todd Harvey, the curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center archives, Library of Congress.

The American Folklife Center is delighted to announce donation of the Bess Lomax Hawes Collection (AFC 2014/008) to the Center’s archive. The collection contains manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs, and moving images relating to the career and personal life of Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009), a profound figure in 20th century American folklife. Musician, filmmaker, and teacher, she may be best remembered as the woman who implemented the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts and then spread the idea to state agencies. In 1982 she established the National Heritage Fellowship program at the NEA. Her memoir, Sing It Pretty, was published in 2008.

Bess was the youngest daughter of John A. Lomax, Sr., honorary curator of the Archive of American Folk-Song—now the American Folklife Center archive. Her brother, Alan Lomax, was perhaps the best-known American folklorist of the 20th century. The Center’s archive holds approximately 100 Lomax family collections document expressive culture in America and the world. Though only a teenager when her brother and father emigrated from Texas to Washington, Bess’s imprint upon the archive is strong and her voice is distinctive.

In 1938, for example, her father and stepmother journeyed with Bess and a school friend to Europe for a seven-month grand tour. Her letters to Alan are preserved in the Center’s John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax Papers (AFC 1933/001). A month after the Anschluss, the family visited Vienna, and the 17-year-old Bess provided first-hand testament to the scene:

Dearest Alan and Elizabeth: When we pulled into the station this morning we were greeted by a city hall or something-or-other completely swathed in red with pennants and flags and draperies of various sorts dripping off the sides and swastikas plastered everywhere. And fifteen minutes later while Elizabeth and I were wandering in search of the local Jugenherberge we met a whole column of brownshirts marching into town, singing. Everyone here wears a little swastika pin or flies one from his baby-carriage or embroiders it on his sofa-pillows.… It’s quite incredible. I almost got knocked down twice today by two brown-shirted gentlemen; I don’t know any German except “thank-you” and “how much,” so I refrained from comment.”

Papers in the Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004) document the siblings’ collaboration in the politics of cultural documentation, on the book, Brown Girl in the Ring, and in their long relationship with the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

Shortly after Bess passed in 2009, her children Naomi Bishop, Corey Denos, and Nicholas Hawes contacted the Center about donating their mother’s papers. Over several years the family carefully selected materials that reflected Bess’s life and career, not an easy task among materials spanning the 1890s to the 2000s.

It is the papers from her time at the National Endowment for the Arts that will likely draw the most research attention to the Bess Lomax Hawes collection in that they humanize the federal government’s foray into cultural heritage. Barry Bergey, current director of the NEA Folk & Traditional Arts Program, worked closely with Bess. When asked about Bess’s role at the NEA he reflected:

Bess came to the agency with a profound belief that the federal government could and should support folk artists – artists that reflected the breadth and depth of our nation’s cultural heritage. But she also knew that governmental cultural initiatives, such as the WPA arts projects, could be ephemeral – as a college student she returned to visit her family one weekend only to witness the sudden dismantling of the governmental cultural programs in the late-1930’s, some of them employing family members and friends.

So Bess entered her first day on the job in January of 1977 with a certain sense of urgency.  She says:  “I sat down and thought to myself, ‘Bess you’d better work fast.  You’d better think what you want to do and get on with it girl….  Thinking that way right from the very first day informed everything I did with a sense of ‘you only have this chance for a little while’….  Let’s work as flexibly and as steadily and as purposefully as we possibly can and try to get as much done as possible because this whole place is liable to blow up one of these days. Everything does. There isn’t anything constant but art and trouble.”

Among other highlights of the collection are:

  • Lomax family documentation, such as early 20th century photographs and a family Bible
  • Documentation of important musicians, including heretofore unknown photographs of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter
  • Documentation of Bess’s career as an educator during the 1960s at what is now California State University at Northridge

Dozens of congratulatory letters marking her retirement from the NEA in 1992 provide testament to her impact among culture workers and power brokers alike. These words from journalist Charles Kuralt reflect a thread of deep respect:

Dear Bess: In the course of my wanderings, I have come to believe that there is such a thing as a conspiracy of good people who, without even knowing one another, make the world finer and life upon the earth more humane. And you are a capo, Bess, sachem, pharaoh, secretary-general, Mother Superior of this wide-ranging brother and sisterhood. I admire you for what you have done and for who you are, and send love.

Comments (3)

  1. i know her from her singing on moe asch recordings of leadbelly and woody gutherie.

  2. Congratulations, Todd!
    Another significant addition to this collection.
    Very nice write up…I have reposted it on fb for others to enjoy.

    Fieldschool 2003

  3. This is wonderful news. I had the privilege of working with Bess Hawes at the Arts Endowment (though not in the Folk Arts Program) for a number of years. She was an unforgettable person, and it is so good to know that her documentary legacy will now be available alongside those of other members of her family in the nation’s folk archive.

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