A Conversation with Bess Lomax Hawes,
Part 1

by Ross Altman

July 10, 2003 (Reprinted from FolkWorks print edition V3N6)

Bess_Part_1.jpgBess Lomax Hawes is the daughter of famed folklorist John Lomax and the sister of Alan Lomax. During her student days at Bryn Mawr College she met many of the folk musicians then living in New York and performed with them at informal gatherings. Out of this grew The Almanac Singers that included among others, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Sis Cunningham, Bess and Butch Hawes, who she was later to marry. She co-wrote The M.T.A. Song which was made famous by the Kingston Trio. She later in her career joined the faculty of San Fernando Valley State College (later California State University Northridge) where she was an instructor of anthropology. In 1975 Hawes started and helped produce the Smithsonian's Bicentennial Folklife Festival and then joined the NEA in 1977 as an administrator. She created the Heritage Fellowships Program during her 16-years as director of the NEA's folk arts division and President Clinton honored her with a National Medal of Arts in 1993. The Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship recognizes extraordinary 'keepers of tradition' who teach, collect, preserve and advocate folk and traditional arts.

Folk Works: This is Ross Altman and I'm sitting here with Bess Lomax Hawes in her home in West Hills, CA on July 10, 2003. At the moment we are looking at a book called Songs for Political Action , 1926-1953: Folk Music, Topical Songs and The American Left, put out by Bear Family Records. I am showing Bess some pictures of the Almanac singers in Detroit in 1942.

FW: I heard that the Almanac Singers were called "the only group that rehearsed on stage."

BLH: Mmm-hmmm. Probably. It's true. We were very casual. The idea was to get other people to sing too. It was kind of informal. I think too informal-it didn't compete well with other things that were going on at the same time. When the war came, World War II, the Singers essentially broke up. Pete went into the Army, also my brother, who came around occasionally. Woody joined the Merchant Marines. My brother joined the Merchant Marines. My husband was 4-F and couldn't do anything.

FW: How did you meet Butch?

BLH: He was a brother of John Peter Hawes, who was one of the first of the four Almanacs. He was a Boston boy and I don't know how he met Pete-he got around a lot. It was all very casual and kind of friendly. People getting together to do something and we thought we were doing something very important, that was to remind people that they came from a very complicated culture that was interesting and that had songs in it and had a lot of things to say for itself. And always had. We did consider ourselves basically speaking left wing, but as I said before everybody of that period did. You were one kind of a left winger or another or else you were a fascist. Of that era, that was about it. The middle range took a very long time to get any kind of motion going, but this came out of a period when the American student had been very largely politicized by a number of factors, one of which was the peace movement. There was a huge peace movement that I joined way before I ever got involved with the Almanac Singers or anything like that.

FW: So this was a peace movement to keep America out of World War II basically.

BLH: Mm-hm. I'm just kind of giving a rough idea of the politics of that era. I don't want to spend too much time on that because it really has been written about a lot and it's mostly been written about very badly, by people with particular...

FW: ...axes to grind?

BLH: Yeah, yeah.

FW: In what respect?

BLH: Well, they either were very left or they were very right and they wanted to prove their point or the other point...but kind of a sober history has not been done...I don't think.

FW: When did you join the Almanac Singers?

BLH: In 1941. When I got out of college.

FW: And this was before Pearl Harbor?

BLH: Mm-hm.

FW: And this was in New York City?

BLH: That's right. I'd been going to school in Pennsylvania and when I graduated it was from Bryn Mawr College. I had been singing with them occasionally on weekends when I could get down to New York.

FW: What was your first contact that got you into that...?

BLH: My father and Charles Seeger both worked for the WPA and were involved in the music department there. Now Charles was married to Ruth Crawford Seeger. She was a very well known feminist composer of the period. She was doing the music for a book that father was doing. Both families were starting to work together as well as know each other socially. I met Pete when he came down from Harvard for Christmas vacation visiting his folks.

FW: This was before he went into the Army?

BLH: Yes. Nobody went into the army until they had to. There was a draft on if you recall. It effectively blew up the Almanacs. All of the strongest people were gone.

FW: Well, you went from doing the album of peace songs-was it Songs for John Doe?

BLH: Mm-hm.

FW: Then Pearl Harbor and then Woody Guthrie was quoted as saying "I guess we're not going to be singing those peace songs anymore." And very quickly the Almanac Singers started to do-there's no way else to describe them-pro-war songs like "The Reuben James." You were saying that Woody's song about the Reuben James went on for 40 pages.

BLH: I don't remember how long it was, but it included the name of every sailor who was drowned, and there were 900 of them. If you sing everybody's name in a ballad verse, you've got pages and pages and pages of nothing but names...finally, we all kind of liked it, but we didn't think it would go...we couldn't sing it ourselves...it was too much to remember...so then Pete came up with the idea of ‘what were their names,' "Why don't you turn it around that way, Woody, then you can put in some names if you want to but you don't have to put all of them."

FW: Brilliant solution.

BLH: The trick of song editing is very special.

FW: Comment, if you would, about your feelings as you moved from a peacetime repertoire practically overnight to war songs.

BLH: We were children of the period. Nobody was over about 20 years old-we were kids. And we did what was the big thing, what was going on. We talked about it a lot, we worried about it a lot; we took it very seriously. I can't say that we were models of any kind of consistency. I don't think anybody was at that period. Any 19 year old that tells you they never changed their mind about anything or never stopped and did something else...I think is foolish, or lying or something.

FW: That's a beautiful picture of you, isn't it?

BLH: It's a nice picture.

FW: You're drop dead gorgeous, if I may say.

BLH: Well, thank you. This was done in Detroit. What happened was that after everybody went off to war, the people who were left and were active were Sis Cunningham and me.

FW: And Sis went on to found Broadside?

BLH: Well, she wasn't thinking about it then. She was just being an Almanac Singer. Arthur Stern was a good bass and he bassed for Lee (Hayes) whenever we needed a bass. Charles Polachek came in at that stage. Anyway, the auto workers' union called up Pete and said they wanted to hire the Almanac Singers to come out and sing at all of their local unions in Detroit. It was a two-month job, so we took off-all that could travel. And that was these four.

FW: You've got a mandolin in your hand (referring to picture).

BLH: It was Woody's old mandolin.

FW: How did you get Woody's old mandolin?

BLH: He put his foot through it.

FW: Didn't play well enough for him any more?

BLH: Well, I fixed it over with Scotch Tape-he had smashed the whole front of it.

FW: How did he happen to put his foot through it? Was it an accident?

BLH: He was mad...

FW: He was mad...

BLH: He was arguing with Pete. It was in the front seat of the car.

FW: You remember what they might have been arguing about?

BLH: No...whatever.

FW: Well, Woody's already got the sign that says, "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar...and this is 1942...so you had Woody's mandolin...

BLH: Uh-huh...and I kept it.

FW: And you kept it?

BLH: Yeah, he didn't want it back...we all picked up whatever instrument was not being used at the time. Nobody put any money into it.

FW: Do you have any other good Woody stories?

BLH: He was a very complicated man and nobody knows to this day whether or not the disease that killed him was already showing up when he was that young.

FW: Oh, really.

BLH: Yeah. It's a very insidious disease and no one really knew very much about it.

FW: This is Huntington's Chorea?

BLH: Yes, it apparently is hereditary. He was just always extremely unpredictable. You never knew whether he was going to be good or bad-if he was going to love you or insult you or whatever. He was very particular about wanting to be thought of as a man of the people. He wanted to be thought of as a good working man, which he wasn't.

FW: He was middle class actually?

BLH: He was middle class and he wrote. That's what he did, he wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I would get up in Almanac house and come down...it was just a great big old New York brownstone...we all had bedrooms scattered all through it...it was kind of a community house...I stayed there some of the time and some of the time in my own apartment when I could afford it. I had a job and I was working at that time. I would come downstairs to go to work and Woody would be falling asleep all over the kitchen table, with his head on the table and his hands on the typewriter-the room just full of manuscript that he'd written and just thrown out, like that, just pitched 30 or 40 pages, single-spaced. He would have written all night.

FW: And these were songs or prose?

BLH: Both. Lee Hays wrote a parody of "A Great Historical Bum" about Woody-just one verse..."My name is Woody Guthrie/I'm the great hysterical bum/Highly saturated/on whiskey rye or rum/I've wrote a million pages/And I've never read a one/And that's about the biggest thing that I have ever done."

FW: Here you are again...with Millard Lampell. Tell me about Millard Lampell.

BLH: Millard was a college boy from New Jersey, I think...he was a friend of Pete's...I think Pete knew him first. He was an excellent, quick writer. If somebody wanted a song about their union, Millard would sit down and whack it out right then. Or he would improvise it-he was the one I think that got us improvising as much as we did on stage. One of the games that we would play on stage is that we would sing a song that had a chorus, and each one of us would make up a different verse.

FW: Well, he apparently added the third verse to Union Maid. The one that said "You girls want to be free/take a little tip from me/just get you a man who's a union man/and join the ladies' auxiliary"...

BLH: Yes...but that was some time later on. After the song was first written, nobody thought anything about the woman's problem. Songs change all the time anyway...that's me...

FW: There you are in the group picture fighting the fascists, with Pete and Woody and Millard and...

BLH: Arthur Stern and Sis.

FW: It must have been something to have you all on stage together.

BLH: If we ever could manage it.

FW: Now in this book, The Last Cavalier, this group that you're living with is referred to as, if I may quote here, "When word reached Lomax (i.e. your father) that his younger daughter (i.e. you) was in some horrible den of iniquity (and that was Almanac house.) How did it get that reputation? It says here, "He immediately ordered Ms. Terrell to pack his bag and caught the next train..."

BLH: Ms. Terrell was his wife. He always referred to her by her maiden name.

FW: That was just Texas gentility?

BLH: I don't know. It was laughed about it in the family. Ms. Terrell laughed at it because when they checked into hotels, the hotel people would assume he was traveling with Miss Terrell and their eyes would go up.

FW: So he was a traveling den of iniquity himself..."only moments before his arrival, Bess learned he was coming, rushed to the attic room, packed her things and decamped to the apartment of a girlfriend around the corner. Pete Seeger answered Lomax's knock and found him on the stoop, red-faced. ‘Where,' he boomed, ‘is my daughter?' Then Seeger directed him around the corner." It seems he was of the opinion that your companions were not very high class. Do you know how he might have developed that opinion?

BLH: Well, Father was an intellectual snob like most people of his age were at that time. He wanted me to be a college teacher and a Ph.D. and he wanted me to write the Great American Novel or something. He didn't want me to be running around the country with a bunch of ratty looking folk singers.

FW: So he was not your typical left wing folk singer.

BLH: No, heavens no. He voted for Republicans after Roosevelt died. In fact, I'm not even sure he voted for Roosevelt at first. He was very conservative.

FW: So you and Alan became left-wingers out of teen-age rebellion against...

BLH: I don't think we rebelled so much as we insisted on doing it. We were very impressed by the left wing of that period. And everybody was really at that period...it was a groovy thing to do.

FW: A groovy thing to do?

BLH: Uh-huh, to be in that movement, and there were various parts of it, various factions of it, and they all argued, and disputed, and they fought.

FW: Did you learn to sing from your father?

BLH: No, no we just sang at home. I mean we sang as a family.

FW: Did your mother sing too?

BLH: Mm-hm.

FW: So it was just part of growing up?

BLH: Mm-hm. We sang in the car mostly. Car rides were very long and tedious in those days. You had to do something to keep your spirits up.

FW: Well, you must have been singing unusual songs because these were songs that had not been collected-like the cowboy songs that John Lomax...

BLH: Well, we sang...there was a bunch of family songs we sang. They've since been put in various books. Actually father's repertoire included a lot of black spirituals. I think there must have been black churches around there, because he knew several very good ones which we got to sing with him. And then he knew a lot of songs that came out of the singing school movement, which was active when he was a young man. I'm sure he went to several of them.

FW: Was he a professor of English in Austin?

BLH: No he was not. He was the Registrar for the University of Texas.

FW: Oh, really?

BLH: He never got anything beyond a BA degree.

FW: I understand that he tried to get the English department at the University of Texas at Austin to help pay for his cowboy song collecting.

BLH: No. He submitted a paper that contained those songs he'd collected to his English professor. His English professor gave it back to him and said, "This is worthless, Lomax. You must not waste your valuable time on this kind of junk. It's populist. It has no literary quality. It has nothing to recommend it." So he wouldn't let him turn in the paper. Father was so upset by this he went and burned the whole collection.

FW: Oh my God!

BLH: And he had a little fire in the back of the building he was living in. He later reconstructed them. He went and got them again.

FW: He must have, because they were published in 1910. But he actually was so upset he burned the original manuscript?

BLH: Oh yeah. He wanted to be a great scholar. He wanted to be a great man. He wanted to be a gentleman. He was just a country boy-he didn't get to the University of Texas until he was 18 or 20, nearly towards the end of his youth. He'd been working for years.

FW: I see.

BLH: And that was not ordinary in that period-not at all.

FW: Did your father take you on any collecting trips when he was going to the southern prisons?

BLH: I went on one prison thing, once. I went into a prison and I went into a little room by myself and sat down with this convict who was going to sing me a song.

FW: Do you remember what state this was in?

BLH: It was in Louisiana, and I was supposed to write down the music. Because father couldn't remember a tune and he couldn't take a...

FW: He didn't have his disc recorder?

BLH: He didn't have his recorder and he wanted that song in particular. So I was supposed to learn the tune and write it down in music notation, which I tried to do. It's not very good but it was my first one.

FW: Do you remember which one that was?

BLH: No I don't. It was not a very well known song.

FW: But you actually went with him to do the music notation?

BLH: Right, and they wouldn't let him in with me-I had to go in the room with the convict by myself. I don't know why. Prisons are irrational.

FW: They let you in a room with a convict by yourself, but they wouldn't let you go in with your father? Was he less reputable than the convicts?

BLH: I just decided over the years that prisons are meant to drive you crazy. They're set up that way. They don't make any effort to take care of the things that are obviously silly.


In Part II Bess will talk about People's Songs, how she became a folklorist and her work with The Georgia Sea Island Singers, as well as how she wrote the MTA song. Stay tuned.

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.