Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tribute: Bess Lomax Hawes

We should all be so lucky to live to the ripe age of 88; luckier still to live a rich, full, and varied life; and luckiest of all to have a loving family, countless friends and associates who admire and respect us and our work, and yet still retain our compassion for other people and our zest for life.

Bess Lomax Hawes, who passed away a few days ago, was such a person.

For starters, she is arguably the single most important reason there is a comprehensive network of folk and traditional artists and organizations in the U.S. As founding director of the National Endowment for the Arts' Folk Arts Program, it was largely due to her vision that every state has a folk arts program, that the Smithsonian Institution holds its annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall, and why we recognize folk and traditional artists with the National Heritage Fellowships. This last program is so prestigious, and Bess's role in its creation so pivotal, that the awards themselves were named for her.

But all this barely scratches the surface of who she was as a person.

Growing up as the daughter of John Lomax (whose early recordings of largely self-taught blues and folk musicians throughout Appalachia and the deep South remains one of our greatest cultural treasures), and sister of Alan Lomax (who who continued and expanded his father's work) it was no fluke that Bess was drawn to folk and traditional artistic expressions.

An early member of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie's band, she is probably known best among folk musicians as co-author of the song made famous by the Kingston Trio, "Charlie and the M.T.A."

I worked quite closely with Bess during my time at the National Endowment for the Arts. She was pushing 70, had a flock of acolytes circulating in and out of her office on the 7th floor of the Old Post Office Building. She never raised her voice. She never said a mean word about anyone. And her smile, which was always a half-breath away, could light up a room.

There was something very "Aunt Bee"-like about her; a warm, trusting soul who with a recognizable voice and a ready laugh, packaged in a matronly figure with gray hair pulled back in a bun. I always expected, hearing her talk in staff meetings, that if Bess couldn't convince people around her to view things from her perspective, that all she had to do was make a call and Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife would gently show you the error of your ways.

It never happened. Bess always knew the best way to approach people; to get projects off the ground; to share credit; and most of all, respect the many artists whose work, without her efforts, might otherwise have remained largely undiscovered or unappreciated.

It's been about 10 years since I last saw her. She attended the Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center as part of National Arts Advocacy Day, and although it had been years since we'd been in touch, her face lit up in that warm smile of hers when I stopped by her seat to say hello.

Bess lived a long, full, rich, and rewarding life. Like I said, we should all be so lucky.


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