Tuesday, August 17, 2021 at 7pm
Four Films by Bess Lomax Hawes

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

While little-known as a filmmaker today, folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes made several fascinating documentaries in the 1960s and 70s meant for the study and preservation of vernacular music, with a focus on Black American traditions in particular.

Daughter of pioneering musicologist John Lomax, and sister of Alan Lomax, Hawes emerged at the center of the New York City folk revival scene in the 1940s as a member of the Almanac Singers, and later co-wrote the legendary Boston tune “Charlie on the MTA.” In the 1950s, Hawes relocated to the West Coast, where she taught at San Fernando Valley College (today Cal State Northridge) in an experimental program headed by Edmund Carpenter that combined the more scholarly modes of anthropology with the exploratory work of artists and filmmakers. The department provided a framework for Hawes to complete four short films between 1964 and 1973; after that period, Hawes made no more documentaries, and she worked as the head of Folk and Traditional Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts for over a decade and a half.

Through an intimate lens, her films take in a range of performers, from lifelong musicians to schoolchildren, surveying the acoustic intricacies of their craft but also the subtle details of their somatic vocabulary, from the expressiveness of a face to a fiddle player’s fingers. Minimal in design but deft in technical construction, Hawes’s films were seldom screened even in their own time, their idiosyncratic style located somewhat outside the science of ethnography, the art of direct cinema, and the expected formats of the educational film market.

Georgia Sea Island Singers, 1965, digital projection, 14 mins

Hawes’s first film—and her only shot on 35mm—documents songs performed by a group from St. Simon’s Island, Georgia who worked to preserve and continue the musical heritage of their Gullah-Geechee culture.

“In 1964, John Davis, Mabel Hillery, Bessie Jones, Henry Morrison, and Emma Lee Ramsey came to California as representatives of the larger group of [Georgia Sea Island] Singers back home on St. Simon’s. They had been singing in a lot of strange coffeehouses and before many unfamiliar kinds of people, but they were still adventurous and energetic enough to be interested in the idea of making a film of some of their songs... Dr. Carpenter persuaded some friends in the professional film industry to donate their technical services and arranged for us to use a college sound stage and recording equipment. No one connected with the film besides myself had ever seen the Singers, nor, indeed, knew much about the lives they led or the distinctive tradition they represented. The Singers had not been filmed before, except within a theatrical context. When we assembled, one hot quiet Sunday afternoon, I don't think anyone had much of an idea what would happen.

A few points had been settled. The Sea Islanders wanted to concentrate on their religious repertoire; though they knew a variety of secular songs and dances, their religious material was the philosophical and emotional core of all their presentations. From the film-makers’ side, Dr. Carpenter had decided not to attempt a make-shift ‘realistic’ background, but to stage the filming against a plain black curtain. This would enable the cameramen to use angle shots impractical under documentary field conditions, and also permit dissolves and fades in later cutting, thus turning the sterile studio conditions to a positive account.” - BLH

Buck Dancer, 1965, digital projection, 6 mins

Buck Dancer centers on Ed Young, a performer from Memphis raised in northwest Mississippi, who was introduced to Hawes via the Sea Island Singers.

“Among the farming people of those low hills has survived a musical convention that can be dated back before the American Revolution—the black fife and drum band… Young, like many fife players, is himself an expert dancer, and in this film he does a part of the ‘buck dance,’ a southern dance of solo male virtuosity engaged in by both black and white frontiersmen… What is on the screen, however, should not be regarded as an accurate picture of the cultural reality. Ed Young should have been accompanied by his brothers’ drums, rather than by the Sea Islander clapping (though it should be noted that the unfamiliar combination gave none of the participants any trouble at all, indicating that they shared a common cultural underpinning). The picnic context too, in which the fife music would more normally be heard, was impossible to create, and we didn’t even try. Still, I am not sorry that we made the film. The fertile culture of this small section of the United States gets a few minutes exposure, and the artistry of that gentle wisp of a man, Ed Young, blowing his fife to the stars, is firmly demonstrated.” - BLH

Pizza Pizza Daddy-O, 1967, digital projection, 18 mins

Here Hawes offers a rare view onto childrens’ schoolyard rhymes in Los Angeles. Atypical of her other work, Pizza Pizza Daddy-O includes a voiceover from Donald Freed, a white actor who was a part of an affinity group working with the Black Panthers. The choice of narrator brought criticism from the anthropological establishment, but Hawes didn’t care. “I was not making the film for folklorists,” she said years later. “I was making it for the people of Watts.”

“The footage included in this film was taken in December of 1967 on the playground of a school in a Los Angeles black ghetto. The players are a dozen fourth grade girls (9 to 10 years old) whose well-developed repertoire had been earlier brought to my attention by a sympathetic teacher… The actual film was taken in a playground area which had been reserved for us for the morning so as to minimize the number of spectators. We used two 16mm cameras, one in fixed position and one hand-held; sound was recorded via an overhead boom mic. The children had had the location of the mic pointed out to them and for the entire morning they centered themselves without direction under the mic with almost professional aplomb. All action in the film was undirected, for it turned out that the children needed no direction. They had come to play, and play is what they did, whether the cameras were loaded or not.” - BLH

Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle, 1973, 16mm, 20 mins

Hawes’s final film is a portrait of Earl Collins, one of the premier Southern fiddlers of his generation. Shot in a modest living room in Downey, California, the work features Collins performing several numbers along with his son, relating the history of his career, and showing off his family’s heirloom hand-carved fiddle.

“You know, I love old jam sessions better than I do anything. Just setting around someone’s house, and you play what you want to as long as you want to—this and that. I play a while and you play a while, then someone else will play. Then I’ll go back and I'll play some and you play some...Sheet music looks like puppy tracks to me. Scales won’t mean nothing to you in hoedowns won’t mean a doggone thing. You just pick up the fiddle, get a tune in your mind, and you work on that tune and you play it. You’ve got it in your mind and you know just exactly how it goes. That’s memory. But if you go to school and they teach you notes you're not going to play hoedown, you’re going to play violin. It’s hard to get an old hoedown fiddler’s tone. There’s not too many around that has the old fiddler’s tone to me” - EC

Tickets - $8, available at door, cash and cards accepted. Box office opens at 6:30pm.

Please note: following updated city guidelines, proof of vaccination will be required for entry; masks will be optional.