Pittsburgh City Paper
  Places like New York City. Sometime around his 16th birthday, he had heard the Rev. Gary Davis' Harlem Street Singer, still one of the finest albums of indigenous American spiritual music ever recorded. Davis' guitar playing on the record is sublime, wildly intricate, and masterly almost to the point of absurdity. His accompanying vocals are huge, booming, all pervading, intended to cut like a glistening, sharpened sickle through the everyday din of traffic and human activity that colored the tumultuous streets of Harlem. Ernie was emotionally and intellectually poleaxed by the album, stunned into an epiphanous realization that he must leave Pittsburgh for a rendezvous with Davis in New York at the earliest opportunity. In one of those random occurrences that often appear as divine intervention in hindsight, Ernie subsequently met a fellow passing through Pittsburgh who told him Davis was amenable to the idea of giving guitar lessons right out of his living room to interested and dedicated students. As soon as possible, Ernie was packed and en route to the Big Apple. He worked for a spell in Pittsburgh after graduating from Allderdice, saving the necessary funds for an extended stay in New York. He eventually made the move in late 1965 without knowing whether or not Davis would take him on as a student. "I got a job at $52.50 a week, midtown," he says. "I got a room from a card at the Y with a 96-year-old optometrist on 98th Street. He was a cool guy. He knew Hubert Humphrey. So I called Gary Davis up, couldn't understand what he was saying. He had sort of an accent and he was kind of mumbling on the phone. Finally, he put Annie on and she told me how to get there. You had to take the subway and elevated train and the Q42 bus." When Ernie arrived, Davis was sleeping. Ernie approached, touched him. Davis awoke with a start. "I mean he thought he was being robbed!" Ernie recalls with a maniacal little grin. "He didn't know what the hell was going on. He made like a little noise and I went right back out again because I didn't know what the hell was going on either. I ran back out on the street waited for him. I'm saying, 'It's okay. It's me. I called.' So then it was fine." "I knew a Davis song, one of my very favorites called 'Oh Glory, How Happy I Am.' A friend of mine passing through taught me the song. It had never been recorded, but I knew this song and Davis knew it hadn't been recorded. I sat down and played it for him and I think that he really appreciated that. So we hit it off really well. I asked him for the words, he gave me the words. I had never heard anybody sing it. I asked him to sing it for me and he sang it. We both played it and really had a nice time. We started out in a very beautiful way." Davis was not the first blues musician that Hawkins had ever heard or deeply admired. As the sounds of the old blues gained widespread, newfound popularity in the early '60's, it had only been natural for Ernie to leap atop the bandwagon. Mississippi Fred McDowell, Son House, Skip James, Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson - Ernie was familiar with them all. So far as he could tell from the music they made, they were like-minded individuals, men who seemed innately able to understand and articulate in the most utterly seductive way what was real in life and what was jive. But Gary Davis blew them all out of the swamp. There was really no one to compare him to and there still isn't. He was an original, a genius, to use a couple words that no longer convey much meaning. It is to Hawkins' continued amazement that he once dwelled in this man's presence for a year or so back in the mid-1960s, taking informal lessons for $5 per unlimited session and running the blind old reverend and his ever-gracious wife around on errands. Speaking with Hawkins in his unkempt Regent Square studio, among his guitars, hundreds of scattered tapes and CDs and vast collection of photos and mementos, the conversation keeps winding back to Davis. Over the years, Hawkins has acquired a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in psychology, yet still it is always a struggle for Ernie to put Gary Davis and his continuing influence into mere words. "Gary Davis to me was like a blind seer, like Homer," he says with quiet, halting reverence. "He was a storyteller. He was a singer of hymns, ya know, like the Homeric hymns. He was a poet, a wandering minstrel-type person who made his living telling stories, singing songs and hymns. Just being there with Gary Davis was like being with a Homer-type person. He was a walking, singing tradition." It is a tradition that Ernie Hawkins has worked tirelessly to maintain over the past three decades. By now, he has been playing and performing old, largely forgotten music for so long that he has nearly become a relic himself. His virtuosity on an acoustic guitar has enthralled and educated audiences form San Francisco in the late '60s to Austin, Texas, in the early '80's, from the International Guitar Festival in Ponferrada, Spain last May to the Frick Fine Arts Building in Oakland last month. To his inestimable pleasure, he has had numerous opportunities to trade licks and laughs with some of the finest acoustic blues players to ever grace the planet. Today, his formerly dark hair has gone almost completely gray and his bad back only grows worse. He has even begun to appear stony, as if carved from weathered granite. "One thing I always thought," he recalls, "particularly when I was a kid, was that this is something I would be really good at when I grew old. I just sort of imagined what it would be like if I was old, which is now. old. Ya know, when I was 20, 50 was fuckin' old. But I just thought, "That's when you'll really be yourself,' or something like that." He leans back in his chair, content for the moment with a cigarette and a few capfuls of bourbon. "It's hard to explain . I just thought if I stayed with it, someday maybe I'd be able to do it, to be good at it. I never wanted to be a dilettante in anything. I guess that's part of my problem because I couldn't just sort of do it half-assed." He laughs, sips his bourbon, and considers this last remark, "Hell, maybe I am doing it half-assed, but at least it's whole-hearted." Meanwhile, the acoustic blues crowd has thinned substantially over the years. Many of the diehards from the folk revival days of the 1950s and '60s have, in fact, died - or moved along to other interests. "As far as the tradition," Ernie says, "it's perilously close to becoming like one of those languages that only one person speaks.Well, that's not exactly true. That's just Pittsburgh. I mean there are magazines and places all over the country where there are people who are still passionate about this stuff." There are perhaps a dozen known guitarists of Ernie's caliber still playing the music of the original Piedmont masters. In terms of visibility, they are well beyond mere punkers, petty thieves and advocates of political anarchy, all of whom circulate openly among us everyday. Mostly they are loners, folks like Ernie who insistently dwell in largely forsaken historical landscapes, out on some remote, psychic plane with the wolves, gypsies and Innuit whale-bone carvers. Next month, Ernie Hawkins will record his third full-length release, tentatively titled Bones and Rags. As with Blues Advice and his resplendent, out-of-print Ragtime Signatures album, it will most likely be praised by critics as a brilliant act of cultural reclamation, while few in the general public will ever know of its existence. Acute disregard for his years of dedicated labor is part of the price that Ernie has ultimately paid for hanging out too long in the forgotten past. "The weird part about it," he figures, "is that maybe I haven't gotten anywhere in the business but I'm grateful to have gotten this far, still surviving as a guitar player. That, ya know, is really everything."  
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