Bess Lomax Hawes RIP

January 21, 1921 - November 27, 2009

By Ross Altman, Ph.D.

Bess_RIP.jpgWith the passing of Bess Lomax Hawes on the day after Thanksgiving, November 27, 2009, an era of the great folk song collectors started by America's founding father of folklore, John A. Lomax, has come to a close. Bess Lomax was the last of that extraordinary first family, who along with her father and brother Alan defined the role of the folk song collector for the past century. She was eighty-eight years old, and died of a stroke in Portland, Oregon. As W.H. Auden once wrote about the Irish poet Yeats, "Earth, receive an honored guest; Bess Lomax Hawes is laid to rest."

Where to begin? Let me tell you a story about a woman named Bess: Sixty years ago, in November of 1949, a sound truck was rumbling through Boston with loudspeakers blaring a campaign song she and her friend Jacqueline Steiner had just written: The MTA Song:

Let me tell you a story about a man named Charlie

On a tragic and fateful day

He put ten cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family

Went to ride on the MTA.

The song was really about another man-a man named Walter O'Brien, who was running for mayor on the Progressive Party ticket and a campaign platform to resist a proposed fare increase of a nickel on the MTA. The song did not help Mr. O’Brien get elected, indeed he was fined ten dollars for disturbing the peace, due to the volume at which their recording of the song urged voters to “vote for Walter O’Brien, and get Charlie of the MTA.