Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation



Today is one month and one day since folklorist Bess Hawes passed away. She was a stand up gal who contributed mightily to the folk and roots-music movement in the middle of the last Century, at a time when it really mattered—the ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. But it’s reading her obits and seeing her name twinned with Woody Guthrie’s that gooses my mood up a notch or two, esp. when I think about a question I asked her a lifetime ago.

Around 1964 or ’65 Bess and I were teaching  guitar classes in UCLA extension. We were talking out of school one day and I decided to ask her about a Woody Guthrie story I’d heard from Lonnie Feiner, a musician-friend of mine from the Bay Area and LA. I wanted to know was it true or apocryphal or what? After all,   Bess’d been a close friend of Woody’s, learned mandolin from him and sang in the Almanac Singers with him; she might know, I figured.

So, here’s Lonnie’s Woody Guthrie story, which, btw, I’ve made no effort to research, because that takes the fun right out of it.

Sometime in the middle 1940’s the Ladies Auxiliary, the women’s organization that provided succor and other things to the folks in the front lines of  the labor movement, came to Woody and asked him to write a song for them and their contributions. For the second time.

“Ladies,” he said (and I am paraphrasing liberally here) “I’ve already written ‘Union Maid’  for you and you said you liked it.” He had and they did.   Small wonder.  Listen to it.

“Union Maid

(Yes, it’s a send-up of “Redwing.” Hello!  that’s what Woody Guthrie did,  send-ups.)

“Well, it’s a good song, Mr. Guthrie,” the women said, according to my friend Lonnie. “The problem is that it’s not dignified enough for us.”

“What do you mean by ‘dignified?’” Woody said.

“Well, we ARE the wives and helpers of striking and picketing Union members, and we think we should have a song that tells people who we are and what we do in the Labor Movement.”

“But, doesn’t ‘Union Maid’ do tha—’” Woody began.

“Please, Mr. Guthrie,” the ladies said. “We won’t bother you again,” or something to that effect.

“’Dignified?’ you say,” said Woody. “Okay, ladies, why don’t you come back in about a week and I’ll see what I can come up with.”

They did and so did he, and this is what he played and sang for them.

Ladies Auxiliary

Pretty droll, what? Lonnie said they decided to stay with “Union Maid.”

Bess was laughing before I finished the story. “I don’t know, Al,” she said, “it does sound like vintage Woody, but I couldn’t verify that. But I also couldn’t verify that isn’t. You’re on your own about saying it’s fact or fiction.”

“Thank you, Ms. Hawes,” I said. ”I mean, you are the word.”

“Thanks, Al,” she said, “but if you really DON’T know if it happened or not, and you DO say it really happened, or even that you heard it happened, be aware that you’re creating folklore and toying with the gods of collective narrative [or wds to that effect]. You have been warned.” Bess had this impish streak, you see.

I’m not bashful. I tell the story and play the song in many of my performances, and  I don’t explain or qualify either of them nearly as much as I have here

“BENTENDO”  (Christams 1992)

  1. Jason Odd Says:

    Creating folklore.. what’s not to love about that?

    Bless Bess.

  2. marion Says:

    Thanks for the blog on Bess.Loved the group picture, too.

  3. Steve Noceti Says:

    “Bless Bess” is sure right- she blessed all of us. I was instantly smitten when I took her American Folk Music classes at San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN) in 1966-67. She was smart, thoughtful, straightforward, and tough, and what I would call a real lady. Two interesting things that Bess said about Woody: Someone in class asked her which song Woody thought was his best- she answered “East Texas Red”….it had everything he wanted to say about people being honorable and standing together during hard times (and the price for not being that way). I asked her about why Woody played Gibson guitars and she said, “Because you couldn’t break them. He used to walk along holding his guitar by the neck, and he liked to drop it to the ground and bounce it back up into his hand”. All of us Martin guitar guys really loved that one. Thanks so much for your words about this wonderful lady.

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