Pittsburgh City Paper
  By his own admission, Hawkins was a peculiar youth, eager to bust out of Allderdice High School long before that day in the early summer of 1965 when he finally graduated, diploma somehow firmly in hand. "I barely made it out," he recalls. "I hated it. I was very uncomfortable in high school. I was very confused and I didn't fit in. I was so awkward, particularly socially. I had no idea what the hell to do. I sort of had a girlfriend and everything but I just wasn't relating to high school at all." Admittedly, Ernie's interests were different than those of his more acculturated classmates. He had learned the rudiments of traditional folk culture and music from an old Irish caretaker on his uncle's farm years earlier, and that's where his interests and sympathies continued to lie all through high school. "I just loved this guy", Ernie says of Pete, the caretaker. "He knew a lot of stuff and he taught me a lot of stuff. He took real good care of the tractors, could train a dog to bring cows in, worked on the railroads. He could do anything. He was a great storyteller and a good musician. Played guitar and mandolin. Came up with the Lilly Brothers. Loved Hank Williams." Clearly, Pete had a profound influence on the wandering, prepubescent mind of Ernie Hawkins. In numerous conversations with Ernie, I only ever heard him speak with such unadulterated veneration about one other human being - Rev. Davis - and we will return to him shortly. In any case, back in Point Breeze, where he lived with his mother, father and two older siblings, Ernie began messing around with a banjo and mandolin, eager to replicate some of the country music standards that Pete had shown him. Music was becoming a sanctuary for Ernie, a friend with whom endless hours could be spent in simple, tolerable communion. Without a musical instrument in his hands, however, Ernie was still awkward and ill at ease in social situations. Slowly and uneventfully, the days of his youth lumbered by without a truly memorable hitch until a few years later, when Ernie finally crossed paths with nothing less than his earthly salvation. "I remember I borrowed a classical guitar from a friend," he says smiling, clearly at ease with the recollection. "I really didn't know much about guitars and I really remember it vividly, just sitting with this thing on my lap, looking at it and playing the strings. It sounds really weird, but I saw the whole world. I saw everything you can do on it.There was something really magical about it. I don't know how to say it but I could see the whole world." There is an unmistakable sense of lingering wonder in Ernie's voice as he recalls this rapturous first encounter with a basic 6-string guitar. He had never felt that way about the banjo or mandolin, fine instruments though they both were. A guitar, however, was obviously a sublime piece of human ingenuity, a deceptively simple, wonderfully tangible testament to all that was good and right with the human species. Even after all these years, he still seems genuinely surprised, even awestricken, that there was anything in this world that could possibly deliver him from all the tedium and deep blue pain that typified his life up until that auspicious day some 35 years ago when he borrowed his buddy's guitar. "It was such a refuge for me," he says, finally arriving at the sad, secret heart of this particular tale. "It was something I could do, maybe somebody I could be or something I could be or something like that, instead of just being this total confused dark." With a guitar, Ernie was like "a duck to water". Shunning formal lessons, he practiced incessantly, figuring songs out on his own. Queer progressions? No problem. Odd tunings? Didn't matter. "It all came pretty easy," he says modestly but matter-of-factly. "I just got totally absorbed. It was my raison d'etre." He began prowling around the sweet, dark underbelly of the local music scene. Evening would fall, some new acquaintance would call, and the good times proceeded to roll. "See, one of the things that was cool for me," he explains, "was that when I was in high school I had friends who were college students at CMU and Pitt who were really into bluegrass. So I was spending a lot of time with those guys. We'd play a lot of country music, hymns and stuff like that. They would come and get me and say, "It's okay, Mrs. Hawkins, we'll take care of Ernie. Don't worry about it." We'd go to Walsh's Bar in East Liberty where one of the greatest bluegrass bands in the whole country, Mac Martin and the Dixie Travelers, played every Friday and Saturday night. We'd hang out and, ya know, everybody would be slipping me IDs. And we'd stay at Walsh's 'til 2, then we'd go to Corny Mann's Bar in McKees Rocks and play until 6 in the morning." Here, finally, was an education that a bright, unusual boy like Ernie might be able to utilize. So what if he was struggling in vain with the standardized curriculum and homogenized, stratified social structure at Allderdice? Where was all that mendacious and superfluous nonsense going to get him anyhow? Surely not where he increasingly felt he needed to go. On his own time, much to his delight, he had discovered that there were small, secluded places in the world for people like him.  
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