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Bess Lomax Hawes, Musical Folklorist, Dies

Bess Lomax Hawes, a folklorist, musician and teacher, has died. In the 1970s, as the head of the folk arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, she increased federal funding for traditional music and folk arts across the United States.

Hawes was part of a folk dynasty. Her father, John Lomax, traveled across the American South, collecting traditional music. Her brother, Alan Lomax, made thousands of recordings in the United States and abroad.

Folklore was the Lomax family business, and Hawes followed in their footsteps. But she did not live in their shadow, according to Bill Ivey, who worked with Hawes at the NEA.

"Despite their importance, I think in some ways, Bess may be the most influential of all the Lomaxes," Ivey says.

She grew up in Texas, and after attending college, moved to New York City. There, she joined The Almanac Singers, a band with a rotating cast of great musicians: Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger.

"We were a very loose group," Seeger says. "Woody used to say we were the only group he was in that rehearsed on stage."

According to Seeger, Hawes was a skilled musician –- and became a good songwriter, weaving together traditional music with her Popular Front politics. She and Jacqueline Steiner co-wrote "MTA," which became a hit song for the Kingston Trio.

Hawes was also a teacher. Seeger recalls a trip to her home, in southern California, where she taught huge groups.

"She said, 'I'll put all the banjo pickers in one room, and I'll put all the beginning guitar pickers in another room, and the advanced guitar pickers I'll put in the bedroom, and then we'll all get together and play what we learned for each other,' " Seeger says. "And it worked so well."

The founders of the influential Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago adopted her teaching technique. John Szwed, an Alan Lomax biographer who worked with Hawes, says she applied the same approach to politicians as she did to her students.

"When she dealt with Congress, she dealt with them as neighbors or people she'd known all her life," Szwed says. "And if she knew them even slightly, they'd be called 'honey' or whatever in a kind of motherly way. It was very hard to argue with her."

Ivey, who went on to head the NEA, believes Hawes preserved many folk traditions for future generations. In her tenure, Hawes established the National Heritage Fellowships for artists and musicians, which awarded hundreds of grants.

"There will never be a time when there is an effort to push the folk arts aside in preference to some other priorities," Ivey says.

In 1993, Hawes was awarded the National Medal of Arts. She died Nov. 27 of complications from a stroke. She was 88.

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David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.