A Conversation with Bess Lomax Hawes,
Part 3

by Ross Altman

July 10, 2003 (Reprinted from FolkWorks print edition V4N2)

Bess_Part_3.jpg[For those of you who would like to know more about Bess's work as a folklorist, there is a new DVD entitled, The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes, available for $24.95 plus $6.00 shipping from www.media-generation.com . You will discover that, even in this longish interview, looking back more than half a century, we have only scratched the surface].

FW: I know you've been asked this a thousand times and you can just tell me to bugger off. What is your definition of a folksong? With the emphasis on "your." I'm not asking you to recite the academic definitions in the American Heritage Dictionary, but as you see it.

BLH: I would probably come closer to that than to some of the more folky ones. I think that folksongs have to have a history, that they have to have some past. You can have a song that's probably going to be a folksong. You can bet on it. I mean I hear something every once in awhile and say "That's going to make it." I do think that one of the important things about a folksong is that it has proved itself through time as to having some kind of real importance to the human spectrum. I don't know. It's memorable, because nobody ever teaches you these things. They just sing them to you. Then you learn them if you want to. That to me is an essential. The topical song I think often becomes a folksong, but an awful lot of them don't. Woody, for example, I think his only song that's become a folksong in any sense is This Land is Your Land and Union Maid the chorus. Everybody on the picket line sings Union Maid. They don't know the rest of the words at all and they don't know whoever wrote it either. But the others haven't gone into the public domain in the way that I would have thought, myself. I would have thought So Long, It's Been Good to Know You would have got it, but it didn't quite. It may come back.

FW: Well, it's hard to compare other songs to This Land is Your Land . . .

BLH: That's right. That was taken over.

FW: . . . because that's close to a national anthem.

BLH: Yeah.

FW: But Sam Hinton did collect different versions of Talking Dustbowl some years ago.

BLH: I wouldn't be surprised.

FW: In California, I mean. Well, that's interesting. It shows you how hard it is to write a folksong, because if Woody only got one or two, or one and a half, what chance do the rest of us have?

BLH: I think it's terribly hard. I think it doesn't much matter. You're writing a song and you're writing a song for people to sing it. That's a little bit different from writing a song for a rock group or a hip group of some kind. That's written for commercial purposes. That song that you're writing is because you want to say something. I think those are for me just songs. I think a lot of people write songs all the time. I wrote songs for my kids when I was raising them, when they were babies. No one will ever sing them but me.

FW: Would you consider singing one of them here? Or the part that you remember?

BLH: They're kind of silly.

FW: Well, but kid songs are supposed to be silly. "You stick out your little hand at every woman, kid, and man, and you shake it up and down, how'd you do, how'd you do howja, hojee, heegee, higee, howjado"-it doesn't get sillier than that.

BLH: That's right. Mine were mostly pop song parodies.

FW: Oh really?

BLH: Yeah. Just whatever occurred to me. I was just amusing myself. I ran into so many people who had written poetry and songs of their own, and had them in their own equivalent to a ballad book that they were saving. I think it's something that Americans do very easily. I think that's what most of the cowboy songs were too. They were songs about what the guys were doing and they were written to keep them from being bored, to pass the time, and because they had something they wanted to say.

FW: What were some of the earliest songs that you actually learned from, that you would still sing, that meant something to you?

BLH: "Old Chisholm Trail" was one. We used to sing that in the car, ‘cause that went on forever.

FW: [laughs] ‘Cause it was long, as long as the trip.

BLH: Yeah, yeah. That's right. In fact, that's what an old cowboy told father about. He said that song is as long as the trail from here to Kansas.

FW: I see.

BLH: And you don't ever get through with it. He was absolutely right. That's what they did. They just went on and on and on, piling up things. It was boring being a cowboy, you know.

FW: Would you sing just a verse or two?

BLH: [singing] Come along boys and listen to my tale, tell you of my troubles on the old Chisholm trail. Coma ti yi yippy, yippy yea, yippy yea; ti yi yippy, yippy yea. I started up the trail October 23rd, started up the trail with a two ewe herd. Coma ti yi yippy, yippy yea, yippy yea; ti yi yippy, yippy yea. Stray in the herd and the boss said kill it, so we landed that stray in the bottom of a skillet. Coma ti yi yippy, yippy yea, yippy yea; ti yi yippy, yippy yea. [not singing] I don't have any voice anymore, but that's the way it goes.

FW: That's wonderful.

BLH: It's just a little verse here and a little verse there.

FW: It's a little more of a minor key than I heard it off of the record. That's lovely. Okay. Let me ask you about winning the National Gold Medal of the Arts in 1993. You went to Washington. What was that like? This was during Clinton's administration.

BLH: Yeah. How did you hear about that? It was in my vita?

FW: It mentioned it in passing, yeah.

BLH: Oh well. What I had been doing after I had finished with the Festival on the Mall, I went and got a job over at the office at the National Endowment for the Arts, which was set up by Congress with a specific job of supporting art forms. They were not supposed to do it themselves, but they were supposed to get money to people who were doing good art. There had been a great deal of uproar in the folklore community about there should be some folksongs in there, there would be some folklore material in there, there should be some folksingers. It hadn't happened. They finally put somebody in there. Alan Jabbour got the first job there. Then he went to the Library of Congress and they hired me. I was there for about 20 years. I was there a long time. It was a very fascinating job, because technically speaking what I was supposed to do was to, in the first place, take care of every folk group in the country that was doing something that needed some money. Well, you know, I could maybe get a half a cent out to them. It didn't make much sense in those terms. I also was supposed to take care of all of the kinds of art. Visual art, dance, storytelling, music, songs, the whole works.

FW: Folk arts in the broadest sense.

BLH: Yeah. We spent ten years working terribly hard on trying to figure out any way to do it at all. We had only a small budget and one of the fellows who ran the endowment said one time, "Every time I sign off on a grant, I know I am making one friend and two hundred enemies." I always had this sense that when you worked for the government you were working for the people, and you were supposed to take care of the people. I didn't like to tell people no. I finally, I finally worked out, by the way, a kind of a folky description of what we were doing that satisfied a lot of people. I said, "You know, you sent us this application for money, because you're going to do this nice thing." We get a number of people together- we get ten, twelve people together and they all look at all of the things that come in. I said it's begun to remind me of a potluck supper. Everybody has brought in the very nicest thing they know how to make. They make their special chili or their special turkey or their whatever. And then the staff comes in and we fix it all up so it was like the parsley and the decoration. Then the people who are on the board have to come in and say, "What am I going to eat for supper?"

FW: Oh, I see.

BLH: "Am I going to have turkey or going to have ham? I can't eat both of them. I'm going to have to pick the things that seem to me like food that would be a good reason for picking." They began to kind of catch on to the fact that they weren't being disgraced when they got turned down. They weren't being turned down, they just didn't make it that time. They might have had a perfectly wonderful thing that everybody felt was great, but we didn't have the money.

FW: So was the medal that was- winning the gold medal- was that in recognition of your work on behalf of the endowment, the NEA?

BLH: Uh-huh. It was pretty widespread. We funded projects in every state, in every one of the islands of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and all of the islands out further in the Pacific that still had American interests there or some relationship with the government. We figured out one time that we had funded grants in 282 different languages.

FW: Wow.

BLH: I didn't think there were that many.

FW: This is all within the continental U.S.?

BLH: Yeah.

FW: Wow. And Alaska?

BLH: Alaska.

FW: And Hawaii.

BLH: Hawaii and so on. People would come in to me, come into the office and say, "You know, I'm a " What were some of the terms they gave me? I can't think. "I'm some kind of an Italian and I'm just fed up with being pushed in together with all of those folks from Napoli. We don't have anything like each other. We're different. We want to have our own thing. We want to show you what we do." They had their own thing, indeed. They wanted to have that recorded, or they wanted to do it, or they wanted to just have somebody know it was there. It was a fascinating job. I never did anything so interesting in my life.

FW: Were the choices that you had, did they reflect some of your deepest interests as a folklorist? Did you find people doing stuff out in the country that you thought was worth putting money into?

BLH: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Absolutely. We set up a program called the National Heritage Foundation and gave awards to representatives of all these different kinds of art forms.

FW: They're still getting awards today.

BLH: Oh yeah.

FW: They were just in the L.A. Times.

BLH: Right. We had...I think I might have a book here that had a little bit on that. I could show you if you want to.

FW: Okay.

BLH: Just a second. You can see how complicated it all was. Sorry, I've been stiff. I have to lean on things. Here we go. [inaudible, not into microphone] This is an exhibit of cowboy culture from Hawaii. They have their own cowboy culture, their own songs, their own costumes and things that they use, their own way of making saddles.

FW: Oh. I see. Oh, gee whiz.

BLH: It's very complex-sort of flip through it, because it's got beautiful pictures in it. This was done by one of the state programs that we got going.

FW: I see.

BLH: Historical pictures.

FW: This is extraordinary.

BLH: It was-it absolutely knocked my eye out when I first saw it. I want you to see the cowboys. The saddles are beautiful.

FW: Hawaiian cowboys with Hawaiian cowboy hats with leis on them.

BLH: That's right.

FW: Who would have thunk it?

BLH: Who would have thunk it?

FW: Not in a John Wayne movie.

BLH: That's right. There was just all this kind of stuff was lying around and they were just delighted to show it.

FW: Wow.

BLH: Most of us didn't have any idea it was there.

FW: These are beautiful instruments, too.

BLH: Yeah.

FW: This was something that was created and funded through the NEA while you were working with the NEA?

BLH: Yes. Well, the people who put that book together.

FW: Oh, I see. Sponsors-National Endowment for the Arts. So you must be concerned today about the de-funding of state and federal arts programs.

BLH: I sure am. We're going to lose a lot. This book is the history of this program.

FW: Oh, I see. Masters of Traditional Arts, volume 1, A to J; and Masters of Traditional Arts, volume 2, K to Z; a biographical dictionary.

BLH: Yeah.

FW: And these came out of the NEA?

BLH: No. The material came out of the NEA. This was funded by an educational company. They sell it to libraries.

FW: Oh, I see.

BLH: Especially high school libraries, where it's apparently been very successful.

FW: It's beautiful. "To Bess Lomax Hawes, friend and colleague, who encouraged me early on and has continued to inspire me through the years with immense gratitude and deep appreciation" - Al Govenar. He's the author ...

BLH: Yeah. He did all the work. Horrible work. Very difficult. If you look, you can just see how many different kinds of folks there were.

FW: Of art forms.

BLH: And art forms are just endless. You can tell....

FW: Irish-American step dancer. African-American Piedmont blues guitar singer and dancer.

BLH: Yeah. Just on and on and on.

FW: Anglo-American Appalachian musician, storyteller and instrument maker.

BLH: We had the best show in Washington, I think.

FW: Anglo-American Ozark fiddler. Asian-American singer. Laotian. Wow, this really is a melting pot when you look at it through these eyes here.

BLH: That's right. That's right. Each one of these people are just as different. They get along beautifully. They love each other. We have a great time in Washington when we bring them all in.

FW: When you bring them in. And there's Bessie Jones, the last one in the book.

BLH: There is Bessie. We had her the first time. She was one of the first ones. She and Sonny Terry.

FW: Oh, Sonny Terry.

BLH: We managed to get him in it. See. It comes with $5,000 so it's nice to get.

FW: I was just listening to him this morning.

BLH: Yeah.

FW: Did you know him before you met him there?

BLH: Oh yeah. Yeah, I met him. He was in New York. He came up to the hoots all the time.

FW: This was during the Almanac days?

BLH: Uh-huh. We had hootenannies, which were Sunday afternoon concerts. You paid at the door a variable amount and you could go in and out. When we got to the end of it, we put all of the money in a bundle and dealt it out to the people who had played.

FW: Oh. So you didn't pay the rent with that money.

BLH: No.

FW: That wasn't a rent party or something.

BLH: No. Every once in awhile we had to, but most of the time we tried to get it back to the singers.

FW: So Sonny and Brownie played there, too.

BLH: Yeah. Josh White had played there, too. Josh was a little sophisticated for us, though. I think he thought we could do it a little better.

FW: Was there any connection or association you had in the late ‘40's with People's Songs and the investigations coming out of Washington with the House Committee on un-American activities? Did that affect the work going on?

BLH: I was in Boston by that time and then out here. I was kind of out of the big arenas where things were taking place. It's impossible to say how much that affected things. I think it affected things a great deal, because it scared people. It scared people about their kids. They were scared that their kids might suffer. They've always kind of tried to keep the kids out of things.

FW: I see.

BLH: I don't think that's good for children not to be in on everything.

FW: I see.

BLH: But in terms of the specific damages, you know, different people lost their jobs and some didn't. It's hard to tell on that kind of thing. It was a disgraceful period. Absolutely disgraceful, because it's all for money. It wasn't for anything but money.

FW: Oh.

BLH: Nothing but the money. Same thing that is going on now, frankly. This is all about money, this war.

FW: The war in Iraq?

BLH: Yeah, yeah. We just found out that the president lied over and over to tell us we should go in there. And now he's admitting that he lied. I don't think he's going to sleep one bit less soundly for it.

End of Part 3

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..