Hawkins: Bluesified and Sanctified
by Ken Chang
Over the past thirty-five years, guitarist Ernie Hawkins has tried his
axe at everything from jump blues to rockabilly to Celtic to country.
But what really keeps him going-and what makes him outright spectacular-is
his embrace of the ragtime and gospel traditions of his mentor, the late
Rev. Gary Davis. With his last two solo albums, Bluesified and Blues Advice
(both released on Say Mo), Hawkins has paid glowing tribute to Rev.
Davis and his Piedmont contemporaries, while also giving an earnest nod
to Delta blues stylists such as Skip James and Son House. Released this
past spring were two highly anticipated acoustic blues projects on which
Hawkins lent some invaluable six-string help: Maria Muldaurs Richland
Woman Blues (Stony Plain) and Gary Davis Style - A Tribute to Reverend
Gary Davis (Memphis Archives).
As Andy Cohen, the producer of Gary Davis Style, puts it: Technically,
I regard Ernie as the best of all the Gary Davis practitioners. He gets
more of the subtleties of the music, I think, than anyone, and he knows
more of the repertoire than anyone. I know a lot of it, so does Ari Eisinger,
and Bill Ellis, and Stefan Grossman, but I would bet Ernie knows more
of it than any three of us. And when he plays it, it sounds like Rev.
Davis playing, not just an impression of him. It really sounds like Davis,
the ongoingly serious musician.
Cohen was the one responsible for bringing together Hawkins and Muldaur-both
had been tapped individually in the compilation of Gary Davis Style, with
Hawkins contributing a solo reading of Will There Be Stars in My
Crown and Muldaur slated to record I Am the Light of This
World. (Gary Davis Style also features appearances by Cephas &
Wiggins, Dave Van Ronk, Rick Ruskin, and Peter, Paul & Mary, among
others.) But Muldaur needed a guitarist to back her up-not just any guitarist,
but one who could play Rev. Davis like Rev. Davis-and she called up Cohen
to ask where she could find one. Cohen set her up with Hawkins, and the
resulting session went so well that Muldaur and Hawkins kept the tape
rolling to cut I Belong to the Band, a duet which appears
on both Richland Woman Blues and Bluesified.
Hawkins and Muldaur hooked up again for Muldaurs spring tour in
support of Richland Woman Blues. The reunion meant a great deal to Hawkins,
who credits Muldaur with getting him to take the next step beyond just
performing Rev. Davis gospel, and to start believing in it.
I was a very anti-religious kind of kid, Hawkins admits, and
[in the 60s] Gary Davis would sit with me for hours and say, I
know youre running away from Jesus! I know you have a problem with
this! And he would talk to me about what heaven was and who God
is, and I listened and took it in and filed it away...And then Maria and
I, we did these gospel tunes, and when I heard Maria sing it, it all hit
me like a ton of bricks. I heard the real meaning of the words-the real
story of these songs.
up the Monongahela
he may be a reverends disciple, Hawkins is still up to his neck
in the devils music, with a prewar blues repertoire that rambles
from the East Coast through Mississippi to Texas and New Orleans. Probably
the best way to describe Hawkins sense of blues geography is to
use the title of one of his songs: Where the Mississippi Meets the
Monongahela. If you cant find this confluence on a map (you
wont, since its slightly fictional), think of it as a spot
that lies a stones throw away from Piedmont country and a few days
journey upstream from the Deep South.
Or in other words, Pittsburgh, Pa.
It was here in the early 60s that Hawkins got his start in music,
first as a teenager cutting his teeth with local bluegrass and country
bands, and then as a full-blown devotee of the blues revival. In 1965,
after he finished high school, Hawkins left Pittsburgh and went to New
York City, intent on tracking down his hero from the Harlem Street Singer
LP, Blind Gary Davis. One phone call and a subway ride later, Hawkins
found himself in a storefront church in Queens with Rev. Davis teaching
him Oh Glory, How Happy I Am. The two hit it off, and the
lessons continued steadily for about a year. Although the young Hawkins
showed a lot of promise, he realized he had some growing up to do before
he jumped into a music career. I learned how to play from Gary Davis
as an eighteen-year-old kid, Hawkins says, and everyone said,
Oh, youre great, youre a genius. But I just knew
that I didnt know what I was doing back then.
By the late 60s Hawkins was back in Pittsburgh, attending college
and playing music when he could. He also helped out in booking Pittsburgh-area
gigs for a number of rediscovered blues legends, including Rev. Davis,
Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, and Robert Pete Williams. Ernie was
instrumental in organizing the Pittsburgh Blues Festival as a vehicle
for getting the old guys some work, notes Cohen, a longtime friend
of Hawkins and a fellow student of Gary Davis. He had Rev. Davis
out there several times and took good care of him. During one of
these visits, Hawkins was able to introduce Davis to another blues and
gospel songster named Robert Nyles Jones, a.k.a. Guitar Gabriel,
who had been living in Pittsburgh at the time. Gabriel (who would be rediscovered
in 1991 by folklorist Tim Duffy) represented an intriguing piece in Gary
Davis legacy, since Gabriels father, Sonny Jones, had played
and recorded with Blind Boy Fuller, who had been a student of Gary Davis
back in the 1930s; so now, here was Davis the teacher meeting one of his
long lost grandstudents in Gabriel.
In 1970, Rev. Davis visited Pittsburgh again, this time to attend Hawkins
wedding. Not only did the Reverend preside over the nuptials, but he also
delivered an unforgettable wedding present: Will There Be Stars
in My Crown, a traditional hymn that he had never recorded before.
It would be the last song that Hawkins ever learned from Rev. Davis, who
died two years later at the age of seventy-six.
Hawkins began working as a full-time musician in 1978, after earning his
Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Dallas. Upon discovering that
psychology in an office was not my thing, Hawkins figured
that music had to be in his future: I knew that Gary Davis had something
to do with it-and I just knew that in all those conversations, he was
planting these seeds.
A good handful of those seeds came into bloom on Hawkins 1980 debut
album, Ragtime Signatures, a collection of original guitar rags and Gary
Davis standards (including Cocaine and Slow Drag,
which remain staples of Hawkins repertoire today). Following an
early-80s stint in Austin, Texas, playing with local blues and rockabilly
bands, Hawkins moved back to Pittsburgh and found work as a sideman with
Gary Bellomas Blues Bombers, a jump blues/R&B band that would
be Hawkins main gig for the next ten years. By the mid-90s,
with the frenzy of the club scene finally wearing him down (as well as
the weight a Strat on his bad back), Hawkins reckoned it was time for
a remedy. And he knew exactly where to find it.
Blues Advice, released in 1996 (the centennial year of Gary Davis
birth), saw Hawkins getting back to his acoustic blues and ragtime roots,
with particular emphasis on the styles of Gary Davis, Skip James (Hard
Time Killin Floor Blues, What Am I to Do Blues),
and Blind Willie McTell (Cold Winter Day). Three of the albums
songs-Penitentiary Blues, Florida Blues, and Will
There Be Stars in My Crown-were Gary Davis arrangements that had
never been recorded but which Hawkins had learned from Davis personally.
Hawkins did most of the session solo, occasionally teaming up with harmonica
player Willie Try on the Delta-styled numbers; he also got a helping hand
from veteran bluesman Big Jack Johnson, who played guitar on the appropriately
titled instrumental stomp, Where the Mississippi Meets the Monongahela.
Overall, Blues Advice reaffirmed Hawkins standing as a dedicated
blues traditionalist and one of the preeminent living examples of Gary
Hawkins took a broader approach on his next album, Bluesified, balancing
the blues with strong shades of gospel-namely, Merle Travis I
Am a Pilgrim, Gary Davis I Belong to the Band
(sung by Maria Muldaur) and Crucifixion, and a Blind Willie
McTell medley centered around Amazing Grace. The latter two
songs are rendered as instrumentals, whereby Hawkins literally uses his
twelve-string Gibson to say a prayer; its a far cry from the greasy,
slide-guitar groove of the title cut, on which Hawkins, playing a National
steel, goes toe to toe with harmonica player Marc Reisman. Hawkins
solo rendition of Broke Down Engine accounts for the only
other proper blues on the album; the remaining tracks range
from ragtime (Ted Hawkins Hawkins Rag, a reprise of
Davis Slow Drag) to New Orleans jazz (the Harlem Hamfats
Root Hog or Die) to pseudo-country ballad (Riding on
a Moonbeam, which actually turns out to be a medley of two African
folk songs with the lyrics transliterated into English). Theres
an awfully wide musical gap between bluesified and sanctified,
and apparently Hawkins has figured out a lot of it-while still being able
to master either end.
The Rev. Gary Davis Chowder and Marching Society
Hawkins doesnt hide the fact that he has long struggled with Gary
Davis music, not so much in terms of technically playing it, but
in figuring out what it meant for him to be playing it.
The music wasnt the problem, he says, although
I thought that was the problem-that I had to work really hard to learn
the music. You know, thirty years after Gary Davis died, I just always
stayed learning and learning, seeking and seeking. I actually got a Ph.D.
in psychology, seeking and seeking, doing the Jungian thing and all this...Then
somebody said to me, Youre playing music. Your music is what
you do-thats how you give it back. And when I was able to
take that in and believe that, then I thought, Oh my God, thats
what its all about, and thats who Gary Davis was.
Andy Cohens unofficial name for the collective group of people studying
the music and life of Gary Davis is the Rev. Gary Davis Chowder
and Marching Society. As you would expect, the past and present
membership runs extremely deep, from well-known first-generation
students of Davis such as Brownie McGhee and Stefan Grossman to even third-
and fourth-generation students who were born after Davis death in
1972. What Rev. Davis founded was not so much a set of imitators
in the aggregate, says Cohen, but rather an ongoing process
that involves a lot of folks-which, in this digital age, I think would
qualify to be a school. If it were an actual school, I would make Ernie
Hawkins, however, seems perfectly content with the more modest outlook
of a disciple. I just feel like the very luckiest human being on
the face of the earth, he says. I have this music, and this
is how I can give back in my own small, small way. So thats what
its all about for me.
Bluesified, Say Mo, 2000.
Blues Advice, Say Mo, 1996.
Ragtime Signatures (LP), Wildebeest, 1980.
Harrisburg Radiation Blues b/w When Things Go
Wrong (45 rpm single), 1979.
Richland Woman Blues, Stony Plain, 2001. Hawkins duets with Maria
Muldaur on I Belong to the Band.
Gary Davis Style - A Tribute to Reverend Gary Davis, Memphis Archives,
2001. Hawkins contributes the solo instrumental Will There Be Stars
in My Crown, and also duets with Maria Muldaur on I Am the
Light of This World.
A Celtic Christmas, KRB, 1998. With George Balderose (smallpipes,
great highland pipes), T.H. Gillespie (keyboards), and L.E. McCullough
(tinwhistle, harmonica, bones & bodhran).
The Guitar of Lightnin Hopkins, Vestapol, 2001.
The Guitar of Blind Willie McTell, Vestapol, 2001.
The Guitar of Mance Lipscomb, Vols. 1 & 2, Vestapol, 2001.