Born in Texas in 1921, Bess Lomax Hawes grew up the youngest child of the great American musicologist John Lomax
. She was home schooled and learned early on about traditional music when she traveled with her father and helped him transcribe the music he found in the field. Sing It Pretty
follows her life story from her rural Texas upbringing to her New York City days with the Almanac Singers
, to her time as a teacher in California, and beyond.
Bess Lomax Hawes' Remarkable Life
Bess Lomax Hawes isn't just a woman who's studied folk music. She's also helped to organize and plan folk festivals, found the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts. She joined with Pete Seeger
, Millard Lampell, Woody Guthrie
, and others to form the Almanac Singers. One of her original songs, "M.T.A," became a hit for the Kingston Trio
(an amusing story she relates in her memoir).
She later moved to California and began teaching folk music and folk songs to anyone interested, and at times overfilled rooms with students. She has been an historical force and folk music advocate, and her memoir Sing It Pretty is an engaging look into some of her most remarkable accomplishments.
Hawes Answers: What is Folk Music?
Written in casual, talkative prose, Sing It Pretty
captures not only Hawes' personal experiences, but also her occasional tangents, wherein she indicates how she came to understand things in a certain way. Her words are always well-chosen, and her stories cover both the workaday and the profound, pointing to the fact that folk music has an equal place in both.
She describes folk music as the songs everyone knows, but never learned, and shares a particularly thoughtful study on the song "Happy Birthday to You." For those who may be confused about what, exactly, folk music is, Hawes provides plenty of insight and explanation. As she pontificates on page 68, "That's pretty much the way everyone's traditional repertory of folklore works: it just sits there and waits until you want to use it."
The Bottom Line
Sing It Pretty is an excellent source of information for those interested in getting further into the history and organization of folk music in America, as well as to those casually interested in learning more about traditional music. Hawes' writing style is as accessible as it is academic, and there's little in this memoir that would not be of interest to an entire range of readers.