A Conversation with Bess Lomax Hawes,
Part 4

By Ross Altman

July 10, 2003 (Reprinted from FolkWorks print edition V4N3)

Bess_Part_4.jpgWelcome to the conversation This is the fourth and final segment of our conversation with folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes. If you are just joining us, we hope you will look back to catch up on the first three parts. Utah Phillips wrote a wonderful song called All Used Up. The last verse goes:

Sometimes in my dreams I sit by a tree
My life is a book of how things used to be
And kids gather round and they listen to me
And they don't think I'm all used up
And there's songs and there's laughter and things I can do
And all that I've learned I can give back to you
I'd give my last breath just to make it come true
No I'm not all used up.

In this conversation with a living legend, we have tried to practice what Utah preaches, inviting Bess to give back to us at least some of what she has learned in a life devoted to folk music. Bess is 83 years old and comes from Texas, a state now inextricably identified with a nonstop execution machine, neocolonial wars and the worst repression of civil liberties since the red scare of the 1950's. She reminds us that it was not always thus, that there is a progressive tradition that once flourished in the Lone Star State, of which she and her late brother Alan, her late father John, and her good friend San Diego folk singer Sam Hinton are shining examples. In the words of an Ernest Tubb classic, I'd still waltz across Texas with her.

[Editor's note: In the interview that follows, Bess is referring to a set of books which we were browsing through, Masters of Traditional Arts, volume 1, A to J; and Masters of Traditional Arts, volume 2, K to Z; a biographical dictionary edited and compiled by Alan Govenar. They contain historical folkloric material that came out of the National Endowment for the Arts, the governmental agency where she had worked.]

FW: All right. Well, there's one name in this book that I have a lot of warm feelings about, near the end of the book, Arthel Doc Watson.

BLH: Yes.

FW: Page 663.

BLH: Lovely man.

FW: He was given a National Medal of the Arts.

BLH: Oh yes.

FW: It was during your tenure I believe.

BLH: That's right. He did a beautiful set. We had an argument.

FW: You had an argument with the people on the board or with Doc Watson?

BLH: No, with Doc Watson.

FW: What was the argument about?

BLH: He wanted more sound back to himself. They have all these little things that they put on the stage now that look like reverse speakers. The sound goes back to the...

FW: Yes, monitor speakers.

BLH: I think the standup microphone and the monitor speakers have totally combined to affect performance.

FW: In what fashion?

BLH: Well, it made you stay still. You gotta be on mike all the time.

FW: Oh, I see.

BLH: And you've got to be listening to yourself all the time. You don't even know if that's what you sound like.

FW: So he wanted more sound . . .

BLH: He wanted more of that. I didn't want to get into too much of a fight with him, because he's blind. He probably has a different hearing mechanism then I have developed by now. Besides, he's a pretty distinguished fellow. I happen to be hipped on this particular topic.

FW: Oh really? So you actually got into it with Doc.

BLH: Oh yeah. I got into it will all of them.

FW: Oh, I see. So you helped manage, in a sense, manage the stage when they would come to Washington.

BLH: Right, right. We always had a professional director, but I reserved the right to blow up the sound man from time to time.

They're probably better now. I haven't done this in a long time. The advent of rock and all of the increased noisiness caused an awful lot of sound people to lose their ears. They were really deaf and they're the ones that got deaf. They would be sitting there with big smiles, and everybody around them...

FW: I see. It bled over into folk music, too.

BLH: Oh yeah. Oh sure. Everybody wanted to be as loud and drive everybody else out.

FW: Oh, I see.

BLH: They also began to want it to be loud.

FW: Well, I know when I first heard Doc Watson, for example, at the Ash Grove-Ed Pearl's folk club-he didn't have an amplified guitar. It was straight acoustic, and now in the last 20 years or so, he's plugged in like everybody else.

BLH: That's right. I tried very hard to talk him out of it. I wanted him to do a piece or two on acoustic just to show how he had developed. He didn't want to do it, so he didn't.

FW: A purest to the end.

BLH: I'm very purest on that issue. I really am. My worst story is going to an outdoor festival and there were six fiddlers on stage all in a line, and they were taking turns. Nice program. Different kinds of fiddling. Big audience. I couldn't hear anything. I went over to the sound man and I said, "What's the matter with the sound?" He said, "It's fine." He said, "Listen to it," and he gave me his hearing thing. I said, "Well, I'm not hearing it that way." I went down in the audience and people were beginning to pack up and leave. Finally, I went backstage and I said, "You know, something's wrong with the sound." It turned out that the man hadn't turned the switch on. It was going back to the performers.

FW: The performers could hear it fine.

BLH: Could hear it, and he could hear it fine, but none of the audience.

FW: Oh, I see, but it wasn't going out to the audience. The triumph of monitor speakers.

BLH: That's right.

FW: Jeez.

BLH: Yeah. I think it does that. It dulls your sense of acute hearing, and also as a kind of direct result, we let machines do it for us.

FW: All right. Let me ask you, before we leave here, what do you feel proudest of in terms of a life dedicated to both making and preserving people's music in this country. I mean you came out of a very fortunate background to do it.

BLH: Absolutely. I feel very proud of the number of people that write me nice things and say how much they got from me. Everyday I get letters and things. It's very, very rewarding. I feel proud of this.

FW: These books?

BLH: These books. Not the books themselves, but the program that went behind it and getting it going. It was very hard to do. It had to have money. It had to have state money raised for it. It had to have all kinds of complications that I didn't know anything about when I got into it. It was a long, hard fight. It's still going on. I don't know whether it'll go on or not if the Endowment gets much more...

FW: Cut.

BLH: Cut. And maybe it shouldn't. I don't know. Maybe we should start thinking of other ways at this point. When I was in the Endowment, I kept thinking to myself, "What could we do besides give money? Someday we're going to get cut," I said to myself. What are the important things that need to happen to make all these artistic forms be as healthy as they can be in this country? You don't want to prop them up, but you want them to be hail and hearty as long as the people want them to be hail and hearty.

FW: Well, it's a constant battle.

BLH: It is. Very complicated.

FW: I know how hard it is just to make a living for one folksinger.

BLH: That's right. Absolutely. And the material is so interesting and it's so good for kids, and it's so good for grownups. I don't understand quite why it's such a hard battle. It seems like we ought to, we've gone a little bit further, but then I think we really have gone a lot further. This is a lot further to have gone.

FW: This is a wonderful document, a biographical dictionary of every National Medal Winner in folk arts.

BLH: There is a tape that goes along with it. I don't have the right kind of machine to play the tape on. I've heard bits and pieces of it.

FW: Really?

BLH: Yeah. It's one of those new things that gives you a picture and sound at the same time.

FW: And here's going back to cowboy song. Glenn Ohrlin was one of the winners.

BLH: Yeah.

FW: Anglo-American cowboy singer.

BLH: Did you ever hear him?

FW: Oh yeah. I've heard him, I know him from the San Diego Folk Festival.

BLH: He's a great guy.

FW: He's wonderful.

BLH: Just a wonderful fellow.

FW: All right. Let me ask you one more official question. Is there anything you would have done differently, as you think about things that you accomplished and wanted to accomplish?

BLH: I don't know whether I would have done this differently or not, because I think it had to be done, but I was never happy about it and it's one of the things that I regret happening. When we started at the Endowment, we had something like $500,000 budget, which isn't even a federal budget anymore. I said, "We're going to have to limit this. We can't do everything. We're going to have to put up some limits." I said we're going to limit ourselves by using authenticity as one of the criteria.

FW: That's just what the subject of a recent Folk Works article was, various views of that.

BLH: I said we were going to do that because, A, we have to limit and, B, I think that the people who are brought up within the culture and absorb it themselves are the ones who are going to take it the next step; not the people who come in from Katmandu and made it on their own. They're going to go off and learn something else next year. Most of the people I met that were doing the kind of singing that I always did, they went off and learned something else. They got bored. The real guys don't. They stay with what they know and they add to that. I said I think that's what we've got to do, and we were very fierce about it. We were much put down by an awful lot of people. They were very hurt. They were upset. A lot them were our friends. A lot of them were our students. It was a hard thing to do. I also said the other thing is, the other reason I wanted to do this, is if we're cutting down I want to get some money to the people who never had any money. Who did Pete [Seeger] learn his songs from?

FW: Pete Steele and Doc Boggs.

BLH: Yeah. That's right. We would give them heritage awards.

FW: Oh, I see.

BLH: But not Pete, who was making a fine living off of them and was doing the best he could to get them around. He wasn't exploiting them. But I just didn't think he needed any more from the government.  That was the hard part for me and that was the part that, I think if I had been smart, maybe I could have figured out a way to get around those problems.

FW: You mean in some way to relate to both worlds?

BLH: Yeah. Right, to relate to both worlds.

FW: The so-called revivalist performers.

BLH: Yeah, right. I never had anything against a revivalist. I used to put them on the panel all the time, because they often knew a lot.

FW: Well, I'm one of them.

BLH: Yeah. So am I. I'm a revivalist, too. I couldn't describe myself as folk, and I wouldn't want to. I have lots more on my plate then the average Ozark singer has.

FW:   Oh, I see.

BLH: I have a feeling that in the next century, what with the real revolution in recording and communication, we're going to see a vast change in this whole area. There may not be any such thing as authenticity anymore. I don't know.

FW: That's interesting. Maybe that's a good note to end on.

BLH: Yeah.

FW: Well, I want to thank you, Bess Lomax Hawes, for putting up with one more inquisitive interviewer. I just want to say on behalf of Folk Works how fortunate we feel that you're in Southern California and still willing to share what you know and what you're doing.

BLH: Oh, how nice. I'd be delighted. As soon as I get it all unpacked you can come and see it again.

FW: Thank you very much. This has been a real pleasure.

BLH: Good.

Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..