Championed folk arts as performer and NEA official

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bess Lomax Hawes, who sang with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, co-wrote the Kingston Trio's hit "M.T.A." and helped preserve American folk arts as an official of the National Endowment for the Arts, died Nov. 27 at a hospital in Portland, Ore., after a stroke. She was 88.

Mrs. Hawes worked for the preservation of traditional arts most of her life, starting as a child, when she helped her father, folk musicologist John Lomax, collect and transcribe field recordings for the Library of Congress.

She produced a "California Heartlands" program for the 1975 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, bringing to the Mall a wide selection of West Coast performers and artists, including a hobo scissors grinder, Chicano urban muralists and San Francisco cable car bell ringers.

She returned to Washington as assistant director of the Smithsonian's celebration of the national bicentennial the next year and became director of the NEA's folk arts program in 1977.

During her tenure, funding for folks arts rose from about $100,000 to $4 million, and 50 state or territorial folk arts programs were set up. President Bill Clinton gave her the National Medal of Arts in 1993, just after she retired.

The story of everyman and everywoman was her life's work, which is why, in 1948, she helped pen the catchy ditty about M.T.A. commuter Charlie trapped forever in the Boston subway for lack of the nickel exit fare. The song started as a campaign tune for a leftist mayoral candidate opposed to a transit fare increase. Her candidate lost, but the tale of Charlie, who "may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston . . . the man who never returned," helped protesters collect about 100,000 signatures to reverse the fare increase.

A decade later, the Kingston Trio released the song, largely stripped of its progressive politics, and it became a hit. Mrs. Hawes's daughter, a retired anthropology professor, said her mother considered the tune a trifle, but it has lasted. A punk-rock band and a country band created variations, and Boston's subway system named its electronic fare card the "CharlieCard."

Bess Lomax was born Jan. 21, 1921, in Austin. She was the youngest child of John Lomax and Bess Brown Lomax. Home-schooled by her mother, she joined the family business of investigating the disappearing sounds of American life early on. Her brother, the late Alan Lomax, also became a major field collector of folk music of the 20th century.

After her mother died in 1931, the family moved to Washington, where her father worked for the Library of Congress.

Mrs. Hawes attended the University of Texas in the mid-1930s and then transferred to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she graduated with a sociology degree in 1941. In 1970, she received a master's degree in folklore from the University of California at Berkeley.

She was walking down a Boston street shortly after graduating from college when she bumped into Seeger, who asked her to join the loosely organized Almanac Singers, a group that Seeger later said rehearsed only when it got on stage.

The musicians -- including Guthrie and Baldwin "Butch" Hawes, who became Mrs. Hawes's husband -- often collaborated without taking credit for songs, often in support of union activities. But there was no doubt that Mrs. Hawes and a friend, Jacqueline Steiner, wrote the lyrics to "M.T.A." They adapted two folk tunes for the music.

Mrs. Hawes and her husband moved to California in 1952. There, she performed in coffeehouses and at music festivals, and she taught guitar, banjo, mandolin and folk singing. Her husband, an artist, died in 1971.

Survivors include three children, Corey Denos of Bellingham, Wash., and Naomi Bishop and Nicholas Hawes, both of Portland; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

After she returned to the Washington area, Mrs. Hawes decided that the nation needed a more permanent way to honor trailblazers in folklore, so she created the National Heritage Fellowships. Since then, more than 300 "national living treasures" have been recognized for lifetime achievement, artistic excellence and contributions to the nation's cultural heritage.

"We're really honoring traditions," Mrs. Hawes told The Washington Post in 1983. "These individuals are the people who've been pushed up by the traditions, they're the lightning rods that we grab onto. It's extremely important for the psychic health and well-being of Americans to maintain all of these little regional distinctions, to establish a cultural pluralism. It's like my brother folklorist Alan Lomax wrote one time: if the cultural gray-out continues around the world, pretty soon there will be no place worth visiting . . . and no particular reason to stay home, either."

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