I am one of those who grew up during the Great Depression, and even in my teens
I began to perceive that the moving force then was the interaction of
the economic and the political. Indeed, most of my generation seemed to
feel that this combination was the only really interesting thing to think
about, along with peace.
Most of this I knew just by sniffing the air, but when I was fifteen my
folklorist father, John A. Lomax, drove me through Appalachia from Texas
to Washington, D.C., and for the first time I really saw poverty and heard
it in the thin, hungering voices of the women who sang for Father when
he stopped to visit.
You got to walk that lonesome valley,
You got to walk it by yourself....
Later in Washington I confronted the proceedings of the LaFollette Senate
Committee's investigation of poverty in the United States, and truly I
never looked back, even though other issues such as ethnicity and labor
rights came along. To me they all seemed to flow from the primary problem
of economic inequity.
By 1941 my generation had also observed the procedures of the WPA, which
demonstrated to us that shoemakers should be able to earn money by making
shoes (not by taking low-skilled jobs or going on relief); similarly,
that carpenters should be paid for doing carpentry and musicians for making
music. It followed then that singers should earn their living making and
And so the Almanac Singers, originally four young people including Pete
Seeger and Lee Hayes - and, during the middle period of their activity,
me - with varying mixes of musical and poetic talents came together to
try to reach and excite new audiences and break through the music industry's
obsession with romantic love. They sang songs that were about something
- the pioneer values of courage and endurance, the pursuit of equal justice,
the needs of the poor, the importance of unions, the dangers of war. They
struck an emotional range - brash, comic, angry, ironic, tragic - above
And they did this in large part because they simply followed age-old models.
They studied the greatest traditional songs, the greatest traditional
singers. They paid passionate attention to the two largest, deepest, and
most creative streams of song to influence our nation and later the world
- the blues and spirituals of African Americans and old-timey music and
balladry from Great Britain.
They rewrote some of these songs to convey a newer message; they slowed
some tunes down and speeded others up for differing effects. But because
of their learning habits - hours and hours daily in front of the record
player absorbing into their bones the intonations and nuances of great
folk musicians, as well as continually presenting and studying such locally
available traditional singers as Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Josh White,
and Lead Belly - Almanac performances had a surety, a brio, a subtlety
that later groups had to struggle for.
The Almanacs also invited portable stringed instruments into the recording
studio and the concert hall. This had of course been done before but generally
for blues and country and western records, and disks of each of these
genres were designed to accommodate listeners of a different color. But
larger audiences turned out to be amazed at the excitement, vigor, and
intriguing rhythms they had been missing.
Gosh, we had fun. Every day: Woody at dawn, sleeping over the typewriter,
the floor littered with his commentary, diary, and songs; Lee, clearing
his massive throat and tuning up his massive bass; Pete, banjo always
on the alert and always with a new idea or a great tune we hadn't really
listened to before.
My own life has been essentially joyful. In the "Peanuts" comic
strip, Linus once recommended that every baby be issued a banjo at birth.
I'll go along with that but also suggest that a banjo, together with a
good cause to play it for, is twice as interesting. Everyone needs one
or more good causes, for how can you not be joyful with solid problems
to work on? I am forever grateful that I came along in time to catch into
the indignant, positive, life-affirming atmospheres of the thirties and
forties that carried me right on into the nineties. I wish my successors
the same fate.
Bess Hawes, one of the singers connected with the Almanacs, later
led an active life with the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife
and at the National Endowment for the Arts, where she was Director of
the Folk Arts Program. She received a National Medal of Arts from President
Clinton in 1993.
authors' note: The title of this article parallels that of Robert Cantwell's
recent volume, When We Were Good: The Folk Revival.