- The Films of Bess Lomax Hawes
I am too young to have traveled around the country looking for the kinds of American folk traditions that the Lomax family began to document in the early part of the twentieth century. Do not feel sorry for me, though; I like being part of the TiVo generation. I am also deeply grateful that John and Noah Bishop, Bess Lomax Hawes's son-in-law and grandson, worked with her to remaster the excellent films she made in the 1960s and 1970s. Here is where the great Lomax legacy and the digital age converge and harmonize. No collection of folklore films should be without this excellent DVD compilation.
The films themselves vary in their approach. The one that I knew best before this collection was released was Pizza Pizza Daddy-O, which Hawes filmed at a mostly African American elementary school in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Hawes's approach in Pizza Pizza contrasts sharply with her approach in the other films in the collection through its use of voice-over narration; a resonant male voice interjects at the beginning and end of the film. In his introduction to the collection, John Bishop acknowledges the controversy over the narrator, as Hawes herself did in an interview she conducted with Sharon Sherman in 1974, which Bishop also quotes. I have shown this film to several folklore and teacher education classes over the years; as a teaching tool, the narration often provokes good discussion about the changing nature of folklore scholarship, the filmmaker's intent, and whether an ethnographic film can be set apart from its narrative voice. The controversy over the narration aside, Pizza Pizza remains the gold standard of children's folklore films. The layering of meaning in the rhymes and the behaviors of the girls remains as provocative today as it was forty years ago. You can see and hear explorations of adult themes, negotiations of order, and the complexities of children's folklore throughout this film. I am partial to the "Mighty Mighty Devil" sequence, in which a girl does not know the words to lead the cheer. The negotiation of who will or will not lead the cheer is complicated and unexpected. The verbal and nonverbal negotiations result in a successful rendition, but what happens between the failed beginning and the successful completion is a case study in human interaction.
If Pizza Pizza is highly contextualized, Georgia Sea Island Singers relies most heavily on the folkloric traditions standing on their own. The film was shot without context. The singers move and interact with one another but do so against a dark and shapeless background. Hawes focuses on the faces of the singers and their positions relative to one another. My favorite piece in this film is the buzzard dance, a rare and beautiful interaction between the lead man in the group and a piece of cloth on the ground. The buzzard dance contrasts nicely with the other pieces in the film, which take the more standard and familiar call-and-response form of African American music. Another remarkable piece in this film is "Bright Star Shining in Glory," during which the singers sing and dance about Jesus being down "in the mire." The performers' deep faith in their religious tradition is clearly manifest in their behavior.
The third film, Buckdancer, is closely linked to Georgia Sea Island Singers. In her notes on the film, Hawes writes that it is made up of all the footage that she shot. This admission belies the remarkable nature of the film. It begins with Ed Young buckdancing to the singing of a few members of the Georgia Sea Island Singers; this performance adds to the former film, as Hawes [End Page 243] asked only for religious songs in Georgia Sea Island Singers. Here we have some of the same singers singing secular music, and the continuities and variations between the two traditions are evident. Young plays a few tunes on a reed fife he made...