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1993 Lecture: Bess Lomax Hawes
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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 Lomax.

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.

From 1979-92 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?
BLH: 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.

And 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 States.

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?

We have 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 vigorously.

I think it would be well received by government—I know, I’ve been in government.

EB: 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 and observing.

EB: What can ethnomusicologists do to make a positive contribution??
BLH: 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 academic input.

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 play again.”

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.
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