Bess Lomax Hawes, who will give the Charles Seeger Lecture at the
upcoming SEM conference, articulates an activist’s perspective on
multiculturalism. Born into a prominent folklorist family, her
introduction to the field involved "working on several of the family
books” with her father John Lomax, the first curator of the American
Folk Song Archives at the Library of Congress, and her brother Alan
She has been involved with many aspects of music:
performing with Pete Seeger’s Almanac Singers, co-authoring Step It
Down, a book/tape collection of gamesongs from the Sea Islands; and
teaching at universities in California and Oregon.
she directed the Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the
Arts, a position held since her retirement by ethnomusicologist Dan
Sheehy. She spoke recently with SEM Newsletter Editor, Ernest Brown.
EB: Are you an ethnomusicologist?
When I’m talking with folklorists, they think I’m a pretty good
ethnomusicologist, and when I’m talking to ethnomusicologists, they
think I’m probably a pretty good folklorist. I’m a generalist, really.
I’m committed to what is nowadays referred to as "public sector
ethnomusicology,” which is a very natural outgrowth of the academic
discipline, to me.
EB: What should we be doing?
BLH: The human
species has evolved a great number of musical systems, and each of them
have their own individual quality and particular excellence. As with
anything else over time, [some things are lost]. You lose a lot when you
lose a whole human invention like that. And I think that one of the
obvious duties of ethnomusicologists is to do what they can to keep
these musical systems alive and functioning. And growing. And changing.
I am really appalled at the fact that we still, after years and years
of talking about it, have done absolutely nothing about our including
anything except Western music in the public schools of the United
EB: How would you address that?
BLH: The Society for
Ethnomusicology should be challenged to come out fighting a little bit.
How many departments [of ethnomusicology] are there? How many music
schools automatically include a course in world music?
not made any of the decisions that need to be made in order to bring
children and grown-ups into some sense of being a part of a
multicultural situation, which we are certainly in. We’re not educating
the Anglo majority, which is rapidly turning into an Anglo minority, and
we’re not educating the minority groups, either. I’m hoping to try to
challenge the Society to attack this problem a little bit more
I think it would be well received by government—I know, I’ve been in government.
One thing that I see happening, as people from various ethnic groups
come into greater contact with each other and are encouraged to prize
cultural diversity, is that the voices emerge that have been suppressed
before—which is wonderful—but those voices don’t always know how to
communicate with each other. It seems people haven’t quite worked out
how we’re all going to interact now that we are at a historic
cross-roads of cultures.
BLH: You’re absolutely right, it’s tricky,
it’s very difficult, and it’s very, very, interesting. We’re coming
along in a very exciting period, when there’s an awful lot that’s
happening that we should be participating in, not just simply recording
EB: What can ethnomusicologists do to make a positive contribution??
It seems to me there are a thousand jobs that can be done.
Ethnomusicologists should continue being very activist in temperament.
They should be supporting the music, alive; rather than just teaching it
as though it were gone, which I think a lot of us do, as though it were
Bach, or something: "That’s the high point of whatever this was, and
it’s not as good now as it used to be.” There’s extraordinary music in
the United States that should be encouraged and could be helped by good
EB: What else can we do?
BLH: We can advise
student and community groups—really push them to bring in good
performances of great musical traditions. We can write good notes or
introduce unfamiliar musics in ways that would allow an unfamiliar
audience to listen to them with pleasure. We can encourage whatever
local traditions are worth encouraging.
And we can participate—a
lot of scholars hold back. They have almost a kind of a magical feeling
that if they say that something is good or bad, that’s really
interfering. As though we have some sort of magical power; and the local
musician is going to say, "Oh God. He said I was terrible; I’ll never
EB: Yes. We usually don’t take the role of the critic.
BLH: Right. I think we should be critics—constructive and accurate critics. Art thrives under criticism.