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Bess Lomax Hawes Brought Folk Music to a Wider Public

Musician and educator co-wrote a popular song about a man who forever has to ride the Boston subway. In 1993 she received the National Medal of Arts. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

Bess Lomax Hawes was an American folk musician, singer and teacher who died last month at the age of eighty-eight.

She came from a family of music historians. She helped her father and brother, John and Alan Lomax, collect folk music. John Lomax developed an Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

In the nineteen forties, after college, Bess Lomax joined the Almanac Singers, a group that sang social protest songs. Other members included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and "Butch" Hawes, who became her husband.

The family later moved to California, where Bess taught music, including guitar and banjo. She also became an anthropology professor at what is now California State University, Northridge.

In the nineteen seventies, she worked at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Later, she directed the folk arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts. She received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in nineteen ninety-three.

Daniel Sheehy is acting head of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian. He worked with her and remembers how she worked to keep folk traditions from being lost.

DANIEL SHEEHY: "Finding ways to help those voices, those songs, those stories, those craft traditions make it into the lives of a much broader public."

Bess Lomax Hawes may be best remembered for a song from nineteen forty-nine. She and Jacqueline Steiner took old music and wrote new words in support of a Progressive Party candidate for mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. One of Walter O'Brien's promises was to fight a fare increase on the transit system then known as the M.T.A.

The song is about Charlie, a man who does not have enough money to leave the train, so he has to ride forever. Here are Bess Lomax, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger:


The candidate lost. But the "M.T.A." song later became a huge hit with a version by the Kingston Trio.


And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Nancy Steinbach. I'm Steve Ember.