Ernie 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 Muldaur’s 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 Muldaur’s 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 you’re 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.”

Blues up the Monongahela

While he may be a reverend’s disciple, Hawkins is still up to his neck in the devil’s 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 can’t find this confluence on a map (you won’t, since it’s slightly fictional), think of it as a spot that lies a stone’s 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, you’re great, you’re a genius.’ But I just knew that I didn’t 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 Gabriel’s 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 Belloma’s 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 album’s 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 Davis’ technique.
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; it’s 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). There’s 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 doesn’t 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 wasn’t 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, ‘You’re playing music. Your music is what you do-that’s how you give it back.’ And when I was able to take that in and believe that, then I thought, Oh my God, that’s what it’s all about, and that’s who Gary Davis was.”
Andy Cohen’s 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 the headmaster.”
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 that’s what it’s all about for me.”

Ernie Hawkins

• 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.

Also appears on:
• 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.


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