The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Smithsonian Folkways remember Bess Lomax Hawes (1921-2009)
"I have always had the unshakable belief that every single human being has some knowledge of important elements of beauty and substance, whether everybody else knows them or not."
- Bess Lomax Hawes, from her autobiography Sing It Pretty
Bess Lomax Hawes, a leader in the establishment of public folklore programs throughout the United States, died Friday, November 27th in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 88. Ms. Hawes was born in 1921 in Austin, Texas, and was the youngest child of American folklorist John A. Lomax. She joined her father and brother Alan as a researcher at the Library of Congress, where they directed the Archive of American Folk Song from 1935 to 1948. From 1941 to 1952 she was a singer and instrumentalist with the Almanac Singers, a pioneering group in the Folk Revival. Folkways Records released their album Talking Union, and Ms. Hawes is also featured on Folkways Records' Woody Guthrie Sings Folk Songs and Songs of the Spanish Civil War Vol. 1. During this period she also became known for co-writing the song "Charlie on the MTA," notably recorded by the Kingston Trio.
In 1975 Ms. Hawes relocated from California to Washington, DC, to work on the 1976 Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife. Additionally, she was a key collaborator with Ralph Rinzler in shaping the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival. In 1977, she became Director of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she remained until retiring in 1992. During her tenure she helped found the National Heritage Fellowship awards in 1982. While at the NEA, Ms. Hawes also helped create state-based folklore programs across the country. In 2000, the NEA began giving the Bess Lomax Hawes Award to recognize a person who has worked towards the preservation of folklore.
Following her retirement, Ms. Hawes was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton and has continued to speak and consult internationally on issues of folklore, public policy, and cultural continuity. Bess is survived by her three children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.