A Conversation with Bess Lomax Hawes,
Part 2

By Ross Altman

July 10, 2003 (Reprinted from FolkWorks print edition V4N1)

Bess_Part_2.jpg[Correction from Part 1: It was Arthur Stern, not Lee Hays, who wrote the parody Woody Guthrie, the Great Hysterical Bum. This information comes from a new biography of Guthrie by Ed Cray, entitled Ramblin' Man, which I will review in the next issue of FolkWorks. Now, back to our conversation with Bess Lomax Hawes.]

FW: When did you feel that you became a folklorist? When did you settle in as...more than just coming from a folklore family, that it was something you wanted to do?

BLH: That's a very tricky question because I did a lot of things before that ever happened. I had started teaching guitar because I discovered that one of the things I could do was sing songs that people liked. I wasn't very good at it, I wasn't a ‘star,' but I could do that and I could teach. And so I began teaching folk songs and then I began realizing that nobody that I was teaching had ever heard of any of these songs...this guy came from southern Louisiana...that would not mean anything to them so I began talking about the songs. That was after I had kids. I did this with quite some success through UCLA-that was where I met you.

FW:  I was one of your students...

BLH: ...I was asked to do a class by CSUN.

FW: Cal State University at Northridge...

BLH: Music Department...on a guitar class-so I tried it. It didn't work very well, but it was nice money and it was easy, so I kept it up for a year or so, and during that time I met an anthropologist named Ted Carpenter. He ran the anthropology department and he knew of me and he knew of the family. He said Bess, why don't you teach folklore and I said I don't know any folklore and he says you do too.

FW: (Laughs)

BLH: Just go sit down and think about it for awhile...(laughs)...and read some of your books and I did...He said you can be a regular college teacher (this was just sort of an extension department CSUN had). So I did and that became very popular, because students in the Education Department, in particular, were interested in it. I gave them a lot of interesting things about American history, about the development of songs. I had a lot of good songs to sing. I taught folk music and folklore, and gradually got into teaching ethnomusicology, which I never had a course in.

FW: Somebody just suggested that you do it...?

BLH: Uh-huh...as I went along I began to realize it was what I really liked to do. I had never had time somehow or another. I was always either singing or raising kids...

FW: When did you have the kids?

BLH: I had them when we were living in New York. My first daughter was born in 1946, another in '47, and my son was born in '48, so they came very fast, and I was very busy in that period while they were growing up.

FW: Where are they now?

BLH: My daughter is an administrator at CSUN, she's an anthropologist, animal behaviorist. My son is running a local history archive at the University of Maine, up at the top of Maine. It's a bilingual place and he's bilingual in French. My other daughter is teaching elementary school in Vancouver, and she sings very well. She and Naomi sang together quite a bit.

FW: What was the job you refer to when you were at Almanac House and you said you got up to go to work?

BLH: Well, I had several jobs at that time. The one I really remember was at the library, New York Public Library-working for Carlton Sprague Smith who was the director of the music Department there and had three secretaries. He was very interested in American musical history and he also taught a number of courses in the musical history of Latin America. There was a third thing he was interested in and he had a secretary for each one of them.

FW: Which department were you in?

BLH: I was in the musical history part.

FW: I see...so you must have picked up a lot of stuff around that time?

BLH: Sure did. It was a great job-I loved it.

FW: I bet the Almanac Singers loved it too, because someone had a regular paycheck.

BLH: That's right...absolutely...(laughs)...that was very nice for all of us.

FW: So you helped pay the rent on Almanac house?

BLH: Oh sure, sure...everybody paid if you had money (laughs).

FW: OK...let me keep on here with these other questions...Leadbelly was your father's driver at one point. Did you know Leadbelly?

BLH: Yes. He used to come home with Father...and he'd stay over night. Southern houses in those days always had a servants' room...so there was always a spare room for Leadbelly to stay in.

FW: This was in the 1930's?

BLH: Mm-hm.

FW: This is around the late '30's...

BLH: Yes.

FW: He recorded for the Library of Congress in 1935 and that was when he first got out of prison. So he stayed at your house and had his own quarters...

BLH: Yes, kind of casually. It was like spending the night or spending the weekend. Nobody thought anything particular about it...I would really rather not...

FW: Okay...

How did you become involved with People's Songs? Was that a separate thing from the Almanac Singers?

BLH: Yes. Pete invented it when he got back from the war. Pete was very different after he got back from the war. He'd been in the rough side of things. And he was much more grown-up. He had a voice. Before then he had a kind of sound like a young boy. Then all of a sudden he had some chest and some sound to it. And he was clearly, totally a dedicated musician. And he started People's Songs. He told me about it - asked me if I wanted to contribute, articles or whatever. My husband Butch did the first illustrations for it.

FW: For the magazine?

BLH: Yes. So everybody was sort of involved with it...but it wasn't like an Almanac thing.

FW: Was that the context in which you wound up writing the MTA song?

BLH: No. That was when I went to Boston. I was still in New York when Pete came back from the war. I was working then at the Office of War Information, in the Music Department there. I worked for Nicholas Ray who ran the record library.

FW: In Washington?

BLH: No, in New York. There were three parts to the OWI. Washington's the headquarters, New York broadcasts to the European theater, and San Francisco broadcasts to the Asian theater. There were broadcasting facilities in both places. I thought it was a strange and interesting operation and I don't know how I quite got into it, but as usual it was I knew somebody who thought I would be good at it. And I was working there when my husband began to get quite sick and he was trying to develop his photography. He began to realize that he probably would never be able to be a photographer because he couldn't hold the camera steady. He shook a lot...he had arthritis of various kinds so he had to get out of that. He began working as an illustrator, which he was doing for the...

FW: People's Songs?

BLH: Yeah...then he got a couple of jobs illustrating children's books. He went into doing that for quite a while, at which time we decided to move to Boston. Because there were more children's books published there and that was his home base anyway. New York was almost impossible. Everybody was coming back from overseas. Everybody was throwing everybody else out of apartments they'd been in. It was quite an upheaval. We were in an apartment that we rented from someone who'd been in the armed services and they got back.

FW: You were subletting it, so they came back...

BLH: Yeah...and that happened so many times. And there wasn't any place to move to as a result. So we just went off to Boston.

FW: Is that where you...you had a co-author on that song...the MTA...who was that?

BLH: Jackie Steiner. She was a member of a group of singers that did songs for the (Henry) Wallace campaign. We'd run around and sing on sound trucks and things like that.

FW: That was in 1948?

BLH: Mm-hm.

FW: Was this a song written during that campaign?

BLH: Oh yeah. It was a campaign song. I never thought of it as anything else but a campaign song - until the Kingston Trio picked it up. I never thought it was a song anybody else would be amused by at all.

FW: This was an actual campaign for traffic commissioner?

BLH: No, he was running for mayor.

FW: This is Walter O'Brian?

BLH: Yes, he was running for mayor and the previous mayor had put through some legislation to get more money in, in which you paid a standard fee when you got on the metro, the subway, and then when you got to the end, you'd pay for wherever you'd gone to. So we got to speculating about what would happen to people.

FW: who didn't have money at the end of the trip?

BLH: Yes...

FW: And then you remembered the old tune?

BLH: Yeah. Well, Pete had done a parody for the subway workers union in New York years before. It's been parodied over and over and over again-the ship that never returned, the plane that never returned, the airplane that never returned.

FW: At the time you thought it was just one more parody?

BLH: Yes, right.

FW: And then it became a classic.

BLH: Mm-hm...

FW: I still sing it. I sang it only yesterday. I'm going to keep running through these questions...don't get exhausted.

BLH: All right, I'm beginning to fade (laughs).

FW: You don't have to answer... just say pass...what was your most memorable booking with the Almanac Singers?

BLH: I guess the one I remember most vividly was when we auditioned for the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center...

FW: What happened?

BLH: They sat back and all the big wigs there just roared. They thought we were great. It was the funniest thing I ever saw...(laughs)...so we went outside and decided we weren't going to do it.

FW: You weren't going to do it?

BLH: Uh-uh.

FW: Based on what?

BLH: Based on the fact that they just saw it as funny and we could tell pretty soon they'd be coming in with the costumes and milkmaid outfits and the overalls.

FW: To make you look like hicks?

BLH: Uh-huh. And Woody was just furious...

FW: Woody was...?

BLH: Yes, he began making up rude verses as we went along. And it just made them laugh louder.

FW: He was improvising as you were auditioning?

BLH: Yes, yes. "The Rainbow Room that sits on the boil/Stirs up the salad with Standard Oil."

(Both laugh)

BLH: That was one of his verses.

FW: We could use that verse today.

BLH: Sure. (laughs)

FW: OK, moving along. How did you meet Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers? Who you...you wrote the book on their music.

BLH: I met them through Alan. Alan had done the most recording of them. Father had been there once or twice but not extensively. Bessie-she kind of hung around. She had a very hard life and she didn't have much money, so if she could go and live with somebody for a while she was perfectly happy to go and do that. And she did that with Alan for a while. I met her at his house. Then I heard they were coming out for a date at the Ash Grove. I knew Ed Pearl who ran the Ash Grove. I called Ed and said I've got to come down and visit with her and he said: oh great, come on down. And I did and I met John and Peter, the other two ladies and Bessie. Gradually they wound up staying at our house.

FW: Was Doug Quimby there too?

BLH: No, no he wasn't. Doug was too young. He was a kid at that point.

FW: I see...

BLH: Emma was another lady who was there...and another woman I can't remember. Anyway, at the end of that I was just knocked over by them. I was really stunned. I heard some of the rough records, but not any of the real performance. This is a story I haven't put anywhere. John came up to me...

FW: John who?

BLH: John Davis. He was kind of the lead singer of the group. I always thought he looked kind of like God. He was a very beautiful man and he was an older man and he was very dignified. He came up to me and said, Bess, I want you to come and listen to us every night we're here. I said, John, I've got three kids at home and it's going to be kind of hard to arrange. I mean, I'd love to hear you, but...um...do you really want me every single night? He said yes, I want you to come every night, and afterwards I want you to come back and tell us how we're doing. I said what are you talking about man? He said I want to know if we're still singing it the same way. ‘Cause he said when you go out of where you belong, you go sing in different places, you begin to change things-because people laugh sometimes or they don't laugh...and you begin to change it. He said I don't want to change any of this. I want you sitting there saying, no John, don't you do that anymore (laughs).

FW: Keep us honest.

BLH: Yes, keep us honest, which I was amazed by. I couldn't do it, of course-nobody could have done it, but I did try to take that role for him as well as I could. They took it very well from me.

FW: I see...

BLH: I think Alan had gotten them into that way of thinking about it...that they had a treasure there, that they shouldn't play around with it. Hardly anybody else does that.

FW: Kind of guardians of their tradition.

BLH: Uh-huh. Yeah.

FW: Then at some point you went to the Georgia Sea Islands?

BLH: No, the Georgia Sea Island Singers came out. I got them a job at Idyllwild. They had a wonderful time there (laughs).

FW: At Isomata? (Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts)

BLH: At Isomata, uh-huh. I got much better acquainted with Bessie at that time, and she talked to me so much and I tape recorded everything. That's what the book came out of.

FW: I see. I think maybe one more question and that will be the end of this tape. Were you and Alan close growing up, or were you competitors...or some combination?

BLH: Well, when we saw each other. We were close when we were kids. 

FW:  You were seven years younger?

BLH: Yes, so we weren't at the same place at the same time. When he was in college, I was home at school. When he went off to do various things, I was in college. So we kind of scraped each other going by, but I was always very fond of him and he was always very fond of me. As for competition, I have no idea.

--End of Part 2--


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..