Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bess Lomax Hawes

Bess Lomax Hawes, daughter of John Lomax and brother of Alan Lomax, passed away two days ago. She was a pioneer in American efforts at cultural sustainability. Many younger public folklorists may not realize that as director of NEA-Folk Arts, Bess Hawes was the driving force in establishing the network of state folklorists in the US, chiefly attached to state arts councils since the late 1970s. Shortly after I joined the Folk Arts panel in 1980, Bess began asking me why there wasn't a position for a state folklorist in Massachusetts. It wasn't long before Jane Beck and I were lobbying at the state arts council, telling them that the NEA would fund a position for a state folk arts coordinator for three years, and that when the arts council saw how valuable it would be to have one, they would surely pick up the funding from then on. The head of the arts council agreed, and why not? An added position, free for three years, with no obligations (or so she thought). Brilliant. And that is how the position that Maggie Holtzberg has now, with the Mass. Cultural Council, originated. The pattern had been established before Massachusetts, and it was repeated in state after state.


Besides this critical infrastructure work, without which public folklore in the US would have had a much diminished presence in the last 40 years, under Bess's direction NEA-Folk Arts pioneered in the efforts to aid communities develop and maintain their expressive culture (what UNESCO today terms intangible cultural heritage), giving grants totalling nearly $3 million annually during the 1980s. The current major efforts by UNESCO and WIPO to "safeguard traditional culture" can be seen as emanating in part from the pioneering US public folklore efforts of Bess Hawes--along with others such as her brother Alan, Archie Green (who also died this year), Ralph Rinzler, Joe Wilson, and Alan Jabbour who, if I'm not mistaken, preceded her as the director of NEA-Folk Arts before he left to become the director of the newly formed American Folklife Center. Unlike her brother Alan, she didn't seek the spotlight but worked behind the scenes to bring scores of folklorists and, later, ethnomusicologists in or out of the academy into the public arena. At the NEA she exercised her considerable charisma and was remarkably effective in bringing and keeping folk arts at the table. She was a steward over American folklife and her numerous "children" (public folklore workers for two decades and beyond). Her efforts, and those of Joe Wilson, angered some musical revivalists who felt that NEA-Folk Arts, and the NCTA, and the Smithsonian, exercised purist notions of authenticity in determining who should, and who should not, be recognized and funded as folk artists. To some, these purist notions are anachronistic in a postmodern world of diasporas, blurred genres, multiple identities, interpretive communities, and contested authenticities. To others, they remain a worthy ideal.


I'm sure that many of us who sat on the NEA-Folk Arts panels, or worked as public folklorists and ethnomusicologists over the years, have "Bess stories." One of the best known is the US map she kept in her office, showing every state. Whenever a folklorist got a job in one of those states, a colored push pin went into the location. She used to point to the map with great pride as the number of pins, and states, and public folklorists, increased. It was as if this gentle lady was mapping an occupying army moving into positions around the country. Another story has to do with her weight which followed her family's genetic pattern and increased over the years, causing her some consternation. I recall seeing her after she returned from a visit to one of the Pacific islands where with Folk Arts grant money a fine documentary cassette tape had been produced. She was very pleased to make it known to us that she had been honored as a "big" woman. At panel meetings she managed to keep mum and let the panelists discuss whether to fund the grant proposals, but it was obvious each time that she had a few personal favorites and also a few that she thought beyond the pale. Occasionally one of the panelists would champion a proposal that Bess thought was impossibly problematic, and if it appeared that other panelists were beginning to jump the tracks and head off in the same direction, Bess still wouldn't say a word, but she'd tilt her head and roll her eyes; and panelists would notice and--usually--go back on the rails. Most impressive, to me, was the person behind it all: the dignity of a grandmother; always working like a mother for her many children (her natural children and then her adopted ones--public folklorists and even a few ethnomusicologists); and inside, the high spirited, graceful young lady she had been--and still was. She had a great gift of making the path through the dark and thorny forest seem obvious, inevitable, and right--and fun.

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