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Coming of Age in Reseda

May 17, 1998|Danny Feingold

Margaret Mead traveled to the ends of the earth to document human culture. She might have saved herself some trouble had she just checked out the San Fernando Valley.

The placid exterior of L.A.'s suburban refuge has always concealed a diverse population with a rich legacy of stories and customs. This heritage is now preserved at the Bess Lomax Hawes Student Folklore Archive at Cal State Northridge, which opened in March. The archive draws its name and inspiration from a 77-year-old professor emeritus who taught folklore classes at CSUN in the '60s and '70s. As part of their course work, Lomax Hawes required her students to dig into their own backgrounds and those of friends and neighbors.

"To give kids the idea that folklore wasn't only Grimms' fairy tales or old British ballads, I liked to get them to look around at their own worlds," says Lomax Hawes, who looks quite the part of a heralded folklore and music educator with her crown of gray-brown hair and coral necklace draped around her neck.

Lomax Hawes--who hails from a family of renowned folklorists, including father John and brother Alan, and whose daughter, Naomi Bishop, currently chairs CSUN's anthropology department--first arrived in the Valley from Boston in 1951. "I found it much richer than I anticipated it would be," she admits.

The archive consists of 24 boxes of "raw material," as Lomax Hawes puts it: manila folders full of jokes, songs, games, riddles, photos and other data culled by her students. Thumb through the collection and you'll receive a primer on everything from Jewish sweatshop ballads to Mexican navel cures to jump-rope rhymes. True to folkloric tradition, the archive ranges from the banal to the epic.

On one end of the scale, an in-depth 1966 survey of CSUN imbibing rituals (highlights include "Drink-Chug-a-Lug" and "Pass the Balloon"). On the other, where else could you find a song composed by a student's uncle that recounts the story of the 1928 San Francisquito Dam break, which killed 450 people and destroyed William Mulholland's career? Or a retelling culled from kids at Sylmar's juvenile hall of the ghost legend "La Llorona," about a woman who murders her children and then wanders the world crying? Or two different children's odes to the 1961 Bel-Air fire?

Lomax Hawes saved these artifacts of Valley life by carting 15 years of student assignments with her when she left CSUN in 1975 to work for the Smithsonian Institution and later at the National Endowment for the Arts. "Some of it was extremely good, and all of it was interesting," she says of the CSUN archive. "I couldn't bring myself to pitch it out."

No doubt Mead would approve.

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