Pittsburgh City Paper
For roughly 35 years, Ernie Hawkins has dutifully struggled to master a very old and difficult style of guitar playing. From the moment he first heard his greatest inspiration and eventual mentor, the Rev. Gary Davis, he really had no choice in the matter. It was as if fate itself had fingered him for the job, correctly supposing that Hawkins would be more than willing to shoulder the burden.
"This is it, man," he remembers thinking after first encountering Davis on vinyl in the early 1960s. "This is it. I gotta do this." And so he did. Today, Ernie Hawkins is one of the world's foremost practitioners of the old Piedmont blues and ragtime styles of guitar playing that Gary Davis perfected some 40 or 50 years ago. He's a decent singer as well, but his vocal ability has little to do with why Blues Access Magazine recently called him "one of the finest acoustic bluesmen between New York and Chicago."
To gain a visceral understanding of why anyone would write so glowingly about Hawkins, you need to hear him play. Personally, I don't think I have anything in my own collection of music to match the simple, lilting beauty of Hawkins' instrumental cover of the Gary Davis classic, "Cocaine Blues," one of 15 blues and rags that Ernie released nearly two years ago on his Blues Advice CD.
A month ago, Ernie was making a passable living as both a guitar teacher and as the lead electric guitarist for the fine local R & B outfit, Gary Belloma and the Blues Bombers. He continues to teach, but reluctantly shelved the Belloma gig after 10 years of service, not only because he has a bad back and it kills him to work three long sets a night, but because he is 50 now and, at heart, simply not an electric R&B guitarist.
Rather, he is a somewhat introverted acoustic artist with a long-standing passion for antiquated Southern music that predates electric instrumentation. Hawkins realizes, of course, that his musical tastes run toward the obscure and that, as a solo act, he will never quite make it to a life of wealth and leisure, no matter his level of expertise.
But he has better than material reasons for once again striking out on his own at this late date. Chief among them is that Hawkins is, after all, "heir to a tradition of mysteries," as Greil Marcus once wrote about Van Morrison, "and he knows it". Even here in Pittsburgh, where he was born and has resided for most of his life, mainstream fame has never been a possibility for Ernie.
The Piedmont style of blues and ragtime music that he plays is too remote, both sonically and in its earthy, down-home spiritually, for today's popular or alternative markets. Nonetheless, most people who hear it tend to like it.
It is very beautiful, often buoyant and life-affirming music, a close relative of the classic acoustic blues that sprang from the Mississippi Delta in the early years of this century. But where the extant recordings of the old Delta masters are frequently dark and fatalistic, the lesser known blues and rags that came out of the East Coast "Piedmont" states of the South are warmly suffused with a deep, sensuous optimism. Its founders were mostly itinerant black men who scraped by playing parties, street corners and liquor joints down through Georgia and the Carolinas in the 1920s and 1930s.
They were resourceful and variously talented young men with perfectly fitting blues monikers like Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell and Barbecue Bob. All of these men have passed away and the music they played is almost completely out of circulation, listened to on vinyl and reissued CDs only by a relative handful of strange, idle wastrels who refuse to pay their taxes and probably shouldn't even be called citizens.
The old country blues and rags - be they Delta, Piedmont or Texas - was music driven primarily by the two cheapest and most portable instruments a poor man could afford: the human voice and an acoustic guitar. As their names often indicate, many of its purveyors were blind. With social safety nets of any kind being scarce in those days, singing and playing music were one of the very few ways that a blind man could earn a decent, honest dollar. Even the Rev. Gary Davis was billed as Blind Gary Davis before he became an ordained minister in 1937.
In any case, Davis, a native South Carolinian who died at age 76 in 1972, continues to be widely regarded as the greatest of all the Piedmont guitar slingers, as well as one of the region's finest, most distinctive singers. He was the Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton of his place and time. Unfortunately, Davis didn't find a remotely wide audience until the American folk music revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Suddenly, the aging masters of the acoustic blues were in great demand. Several toured with rock musicians; others made a comfortable living on the burgeoning folk and blues festival circuit. In the case of Gary Davis, Bob Dylan eventually recorded one of his songs, as did Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The royalties and related residuals from those recordings, along with the increased recognition they engendered, finally allowed Davis to quit singing for loose change on the streets of Harlem. When Ernie Hawkins showed up at Davis' residence in Queens, N.Y., in 1965 eager for lessons and perhaps a few nuggets of wisdom, Davis was still living with his wife Annie behind a storefront in a rough section of town.
Soon, however, Davis was able to buy a car and a comfortable house in the suburbs. Dylan foreshadowed the end of the acoustic folk revival when he showed up at the Newport Folk Festival in '65 with an electric guitar and a rock band. In a brisk game of Follow the Generational Spokesman, most of the revivalists soon followed Dylan to more contemporary plots of musical terrain.
The acoustic diehards, however, remained behind, seemingly consigned by a merciless god to endlessly wander among the scattered remnants of a broken revival. Ernie Hawkins, a simple, white Pittsburgh boy with familial roots that extended southward only as far as rural Green County, PA, was one of these bedeviled souls.