Although the Library of Congress is temporarily closed to the public and staff are, as possible, working from home, the work of the Library continues. It is heartening to see that one of the most labor intensive areas of work, putting archival collections online, continues in spite of the precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bess Lomax Hawes Collection is one example of a collection that was released this spring.
For Mother’s Day this year, my attention was drawn to some extraordinarily personal letters and papers of Hawes’s mother, Bess Bauman Brown Lomax. I knew Bess Lomax Hawes professionally as a scholar and as the director National Endowment for the Arts. I heard her speak eloquently a few times about her own field research and about ethical treatment of groups being studied by folklorists. I did not, of course, know the ten year old girl who lost her mother in 1931. But the collection offers a glimpse of that child and of the mother of John Lomax, Jr., Shirley Lomax, Alan Lomax, as well as the daughter then known as Bess Jr. The few papers we have are not a complete picture of the woman who gave birth to some remarkable children. They are a selection of items over time, not all of them complete. The selection is no doubt partly purposeful and partly the accident of time. But the selection is telling in itself, of what Bess Bauman Brown Lomax chose to keep close to her heart, and what Bess Lomax Hawes kept to remember her mother by.
A paragraph from my favorite letter is below. Find the full first page here, and the second page here. A letter written on Loan Agency stationary (we don’t know why, but it may be a copy of the letter she sent written on scrap paper), it is a Christmas letter to her brother’s family telling about their adventures at Christmas as the older children traveled to join their parents. Shirley, the oldest, had married Christopher Mansell Jr. in 1929, and apparently had not been home the previous Christmas. John Jr. had just taken a job at a bank in South Texas. Alan, age 12, was at the the Choate School, Wallingford, Connecticut. So Bess, age 9, was the only child at home at the time. Bess Sr. writes that Bess Jr. called this Christmas with her siblings home a “scrumpchee time.”
She writes that Alan, “whose middle name is Don Quixote,” was not getting along with his English teacher and takes her son’s side in the matter. What she says next is a bit prophetic: “Alan simply retires to the library and reads philosophy and anthropology and such light stuff and let the heathen rage.” She muses, “Goodness knows where he is heading but it promises to be an interesting trip.” Getting Alan back to school at the end of his school break was an adventure as they had to pack his overstuffed suitcase and force it closed, lost the car keys, then unpacked the bag again to look for them only to find that John Jr., who was leaving with Alan, had the keys in his pocket. They packed the bag again with Bess and young Bess both standing on the suitcase to get it closed again. At the end of the trip to the train station, Bess Jr. “imperturbable Bess,” “inexplicably” broke down and cried, perhaps a combination of exhaustion and the fact that her brothers had left. Yet, it was a very good holiday.
This Christmas, 1931, was their last together. Bess Bauman Brown Lomax became seriously ill in February from a condition that was never diagnosed and died on May 8. Knowing that makes this a poignant letter in retrospect, but in the moment it was written it was a funny story about the chaotic life of the Lomaxes. It is clear that, as she wrote the story, Bess enjoyed her family and took the uproar of raising four children as normal.
Also in the collection are compilations of items Bess Lomax Sr. kept for her two daughters, mainly writing from their childhood. For Bess these are largely examples of creative writing, starting from the time she was about eight. The earliest may have been composed orally and written down by her mother. This bit of verse, for example, is a song for picking up as “Mother wants the room all settled for the night.”
We also learn from Bess Jr.’s mother that she was introducing her daughter to folk dance and folksong, as well as giving her piano lessons. So we see that her education for her future life was already in development by the time she was eight.
Bess Sr. sang folksongs herself. She had learned songs and ballads from her mother, who was from Virginia. As it happens we have some of those songs, because she taught her older daughter Shirley folksongs, just as she was starting to teach Bess. Shirley, the oldest, sang several of her mother’s songs that were recorded by her father and stepmother, Ruby Terrill Lomax in 1939. In the announcement for these recordings, Ruby Lomax says that the songs were handed down from Bess Bauman Brown’s mother (Emma Penick Brown). This song, “I Hardly Think I Will,” tells of a girl who seems not quite ready for courtship.
This lullaby we can imagine being sung to generations of Penick, Brown, and Lomax children:
More examples of folk songs sung by Shirley Lomax Mansell Duggan can be found in the Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip online collection.
The death of his wife Bess almost destroyed John Lomax. The Great Depression worsened the situation as Lomax lost his job. (He had been working as a banker since 1917, when he had found himself unjustly fired from the University of Texas faculty as the result of a political battle between Texas governor James Ferguson and Robert Vinson, the President of the university.) John Sr.’s grief and depression so alarmed John Jr. that he felt he had to try to help his father. As it happened, he also found himself out of work. The solution for both of them was to rekindle John Sr.’s love of folksongs. Father and son took off to have a new adventure in 1932 as John Lomax returned to giving lectures on his work collecting folksongs. They took young Bess Jr. along for one part of the journey and Alan joined the cause as well. John Sr. revived a dream of collecting more songs and of compiling a book of American folksongs. He became an “Honorary Consutltant” for the folksong archive at the Library of Congress, then part of the Music Division, in 1933. (Find more details in Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, 1867-1948 by Nolan Porterfield, 1996, pp. 273-287.) The Lomaxes were once again pursuing the love of folk music that had been something the whole family had shared.
In 1934, John Lomax married Ruby Terrill Lomax. She became a collaborator in John Lomax’s fieldwork, taking fieldnotes and photographs that are an integral part of the collections they made. John and Ruby Lomax continued collecting together for the rest of their lives, and Alan followed in their footsteps. Both continued to expand the folksong archive at the Library of Congress into the 1940s. The death of Bess thus became a jumping off point for a new life, one which had an impact on the future of the whole family, as well as on the archive we look after here at the Library of Congress.
Alan Lomax Collection, Library of Congress (online collection)
Bess Lomax Hawes Collection, Library of Congress (online collection)
A Guide to the John Avery Lomax Family Papers, 1842, 1853-1986, Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin
Harvey, Todd, “Bess Lomax Hawes Digital Collection Launches,” Folklife Today, April 22, 2020.
Porterfield, Nolan, Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax, 1867-1948, University of Illinois Press, 1996
Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip, Library of Congress (online collection)