Blues Access review: Bluesified
Say Mo' Music SM 007 Ernie Hawkins
"Bluesified" is an account of one man's journey in the blues. From the opening with Merle Travis' "I Am A Pilgrim," to the closing, "Amazing Grace," - a homage to Blind Willie McTell, Hawkins' choice of songs conveys a sense of the ups and downs of his fortunes from the time he knew, as a child, that he was alienated from the mainstream, to the time when, as an adult, he realized his redemption and salvation. Hawkins sought out the best teachers and wound up studying with Rev. Gary Davis, whose core conviction was that his music came from God and therefore he was happy and successful. Hawkins now specializes in the music of the Reverend Davis. He's also studied with Mance Lipscomb and one of Elvis Presley's influences, Arthur Crudup, among others.
Hawkins possesses a formidable knowledge of Piedmont and Texas blues. This past November, Stefan Grossman released four teaching videos - two on Mance Lipscomb and one each on Lightnin' Hopkins and Blind Willie McTell - which Hawkins recorded for him late last summer and which have received consistently favorable reviews. Hawkins' contemporaries, Andy Cohen among them, regard him as the foremost, that is, the most accurate proponent of Gary Davis' style of Piedmont/ragtime guitar. Since his previous album, "Blues Advice", (Say Mo' 002), which was also well received, Hawkins has been playing festivals and clubs throughout North America and Europe. His playing has matured surprisingly and his vocals are more secure. He's now an undeniable master in the Piedmont tradition and stands with Brownie McGee and John Jackson. He's so proficient that the only proponents of that style who are more technically adventurous are Blind Blake and the Rev. Gary Davis.
RGD, who was the pinnacle of the Piedmont style and griot to guitar players too numerous to mention in the '60s, exhorted his students that it didn't matter whether the music was good or bad. What mattered was that the music was true. Hawkins has learned this lesson well. On this wonderful album, he consistently gives us his songs without artifice and without getting in their way. He sings them directly from his experience, never through a mask, ego or persona and his fascinating playing is strictly without a trace of flash or hot-dogging.
No Ernie Hawkins performance would be complete without a couple of RGD songs. Hawkins gives us masterful versions of three, "Slow Drag," "Crucifixion" and "I Belong to the Band". This version of "I Belong" features Maria Muldaur and was recorded in her living room. It is a rare glimpse of a private moment where two major talents come together and give the song a truly heartfelt rendition. It's also on her new acoustic album "Richland Woman Blues". By the way, she is touring this spring with a band featuring Ernie on guitar.
In addition to the expected RGD, we get two Blind Willie McTell songs. Hawkins plays them precisely, conveying the deep spirit of the man without slavishly limiting himself to just playing McTell's recorded versions. That would have muted the muse, which shines through the both of them. His version of "Broke Down Engine" is a pleasure to hear. The riveting slide tribute he closes with is a more complex matter. It is a bit of the traditional "Amazing Grace" combined with three of McTell's songs: "Savannah Mama", "Travelin' Blues", and the 1940 Alan Lomax recording of McTell's "Amazing Grace": all of this leavened with a healthy handful of Ernie's own magic. Hawkins will soon be as recognized an authority on McTell as he is on Davis.
Inasmuch as this album represents the artist in a larger picture, it must, necessarily, include songs and influences from other genres. Like McGee and Jackson, Hawkins' magic manifests in the way he combines elements from his 35+ years of playing and studying music to form his original voice. On his simple reworking of Travis' "… Pilgrim," Hawkins incorporates a sparse RGD base line. "Riding on a Moonbeam", a song from the West African Palm Wine tradition popularized by S.E. Rogie, sounds like transplanted Elizabeth Cotton. In fact simple American fingerstyle guitar playing and artists like Jimmy Rodgers and Gene Autry are acknowledged influences on that tradition. Clarinetist Lou Schreiber plays a trance-like solo based on the common notes of the song's chords. On the Harlem Hamfats' minor keyed "Root Hog or Die", Schreiber, featured once again, plays a neo-klezmer style break and shows the musical common ground between the blues and Jewish culture.
I understand that on his next cd Hawkins will include his version of "Delia", incorporating the best of versions by BWMT and RGD and is a more cohesive telling of the story than either of theirs'. Plus, his guitar playing is just stunning. He also promises to include an acoustic reworking of Freddie King's "Hideaway" in the style of Lightnin' Hopkins. Hawkins discovered/created a roots version of King's classic instrumental while he prepared his Hopkins teaching video. Hawkins is currently planning a much anticipated RGD teaching video also from Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop which promises to be one of the definitive text of the Gary Davis style.
The cd's cover is a painting of the man whom he knew he'd become, being windblown down a country road and approaching a turn in that road. Hawkins painted it when he was eight years old. It represents his journey and sets the tone for his choice of music on the cd. It's one of the few remaining momentos from his childhood and is a hell of a painting, especially for an eight year old.