This is a guest post by reference librarian Todd Harvey, who curates the Lomax family papers at the American Folklife Center.
Today, the American Folklife Center announces the launch of the Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009) digital collection, now available at this link. A scholar, teacher, performer, writer, and filmmaker, Bess established and stewarded the Folk and Traditional Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, thus creating a national network of arts organizations to advocate for traditional arts. During the current emergency, this network has stepped forward to aid traditional artists around the nation.
The Bess Lomax Hawes collection (AFC 2014/008) aptly reflects the many facets of her career. An overview of the collection can be found in an earlier blog post announcing the collection acquisition. Of course, her memoir Sing It Pretty (2008) remains essential reading, as does her interview by David Dunaway, a transcription of which is found in the collection. Access to the new digital collection has been considerably enhanced by former AFC staff member Melissa Lindberg’s detailed finding aid that provides folder- and item-level description of manuscripts, sound recordings, graphic images, moving images and artifacts.
One aspect of the collection containing inherent research value illustrates Bess’ interaction with persons and organizations that–like her–exerted an outsized impact on traditional arts in America. Documents from the Festival of American Folklife and the California Folklore Society, not to mention the National Endowment for the Arts, provide an understanding of Bess’ high-level thinking about traditional arts. Michelle Stefano’s Folklife Today blog post about the National Heritage Fellowships explores the latter. Those wanting a deeper dive might look at Bess’ early NEA correspondence, which highlights the joys and challenges of creating a new federal agency. Concurrently, Bess’ film Georgia Sea Island Singers (1964) demonstrates personal involvement with Gullah-Geechee tradition bearers and dedication to one of the bedrock cultures of the American patchwork. This is illustrated in a folder of ephemera relating to the Sea Island Singers.
As the youngest child of John A. Lomax, Sr., and precocious sister of folklorist Alan Lomax, Bess’ collection contains unique documentation of this family with its special attachment to the Library of Congress. Her digital collection joins a large body of work from Alan of nearly 200,000 pages of writings. One of my favorite photographs is an image from Alan and Elizabeth Harold’s wedding in 1937, and I love the 1961 photo of a beaming Bess striding with her Almanac Singers band mates.
During her tenure at the Folk and Traditional Arts Program at the NEA, a self-stated goal by Bess was to create “state folklorist” positions in each state, and she largely succeeded. At present, the NEA CARES Act is awarding relief to arts organizations and some of these funds will make its way to traditional artists through the very network of organizations established by Bess.
A quote from Bess Lomax Hawes, as recalled by her successor at the National Endowment for the Arts, Barry Bergey, bears repeating because of its relevance today:
“I sat down [to my new job at the NEA in 1977] 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.”