November, December
2009, Vol. 04

Text and Photos by Larry Benicewicz

For decades, the Mid-Atlantic has been doubly blessed with a plethora of Piedmont blues pickers. Doubly blessed because not only were there survivors here of blues’ first generation who all performed magnificently to a ripe old age but also because of the many guitarists of both genders who learned the traditional blues first hand from these masters and who, thankfully for us, either still play locally or crisscross the region in great regularity. It’s still hard to believe that the trinity of true blues legends that we enjoyed for such a long time is now gone. No longer does Archie Edwards (d. 1998) hold court in his barber shop (the Alpha Tonsorial Palace) on Bunker Hill Road in Washington, D.C.; we can no more look forward to invitations to any blues house parties at John Jackson’s (d.2002) rural Fairfax, VA, retreat; and harmonica man extraordinaire, Phil Wiggins, will now have to search for another partner like John Cephas of Woodford, VA, whom we lost this past March—big shoes to fill indeed. These giants of Piedmont blues can’t be replaced but their music lives on through their recordings and through their more than able-bodied disciples like Red Jones, who was a fixture on weekend afternoons at the recently defunct Full Moon Saloon in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point; Ramblin’ Dan Stevens of Old Lyme, CT, who frequently visits Leadbetters pub, just a short rock’s throw from Jones’ gig, and Takoma Park’s (MD) Eleanor Ellis, a founder of the DC Blues Society, who keeps Archie Edwards’ memory alive by leading a blues jam in his honor held every Saturday afternoon at the transplanted Archie’s Blues Barbershop at 4701 Queensbury Rd in Riverdale Park, MD. Each in their own right is a great musician. But now you can add another name to this illustrious list, Pittsburgh native, Ernie Hawkins, who apprenticed with yet another icon of Piedmont blues and particularly of late has been appearing in the Baltimore (last November) and Washington area, most recently on April 19 at the distinguished Institute of Musical Traditions concert series in Takoma Park.
Although the tall and lanky Ernie Hawkins is not yet a household name in blues circles outside the realm of acoustic blues, he should be. And I find him a fascinating figure on many counts, but just being capable of duplicating the style of blues known as Piedmont alone would be reason enough warrant a thorough write up. Born in the foothills of south Virginia and the coastal Carolinas, it is a formidable form to master not only because of its complexity but also its diversity. Its execution involves a light, sprightly, fingering of the strings which is at once both rhythmical and melodic, a two pronged technique which carries the tune. Simultaneous to this dual action, is the walking bass pattern impelled by the thumb, which John Cephas coined the “Williamsburg Lope.” When you allow for the fact that the troubadour must also sing while accomplishing the first two maneuvers, it remains a remarkable achievement of synchronicity. Ironically, though one of the most intricate of blues classifications, the Piedmont kind is considered one of the most primitive, as well. Although there is an obvious early 20th Century ragtime component of its repertoire, most scholars concur that its origin can actually be traced to the country dance bands of the colonial era. And Ernie Hawkins is not only comfortable playing in this genre but also over the years he has become multi-faceted, equally adept at the subtle slide demands of Delta blues and the broken, staccato-like rhythms of the Texas variety espoused by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Smokey Hogg, and Lowell Fulson.

Reverend Gary Davis, 45 rpm from early 60s.

Drawing of Reverend Gary Davis, (c) by R. Crumb

Ernie’s chameleon-like ability to move easily between such varied types of blues in different periods of history speaks volumes about his thorough immersion in this uniquely American idiom. To say that he is a student of the blues is almost an injustice in that his knowledge is both encyclopedic and exhaustive. You need only to experience one set of an Ernie Hawkins concert to appreciate the depth of his comprehension as well as his instrumental expertise in all matters blues. Not only is he all over the blues map but also like a magician pulls all manner of obscure nuggets out of his hat. And to tell the truth, just the accompanying factoids and anecdotes with which he announces each tune are almost as engrossing as the music itself. The first number, “Airy Man Blues,” came from the relatively unknown St Louis-based guitarist, Charley Jordan (1890-1954), who as a bootlegger in 1928 was shot in the spine and thereafter had to amble about with crutches. Next up was “What You Gonna Do” by the Harlem Hamfats from the late 30s. This swing jazz/dixieland session band (which included storied blues bassist Ransom Knowling) was neither from Harlem nor was this crack outfit ever considered “hamfats,” a pejorative term of that period for poor musicianship. Moving forward in time, Ernie then included a Tin Pan Alley tune, Billy Hill’s “Glory of Love,” made famous in the 40s by Chicago-headquartered Big Bill Broonzy (1898-1958), who often played in a combo, a circumstance which lent a slicker, more sophisticated feel to his blues. From the early 50s, Ernie selected a rather unrenowned R&B effort, “Take It Like A Man,” from the Okeh catalogue of Chuck Willis, who on the brink of stardom with Atlantic in 1958 died at age 30 of peritonitis. Not neglecting the present, Ernie performed not only his own Delta style creation, “Mean Little Poodle,” but also “Elm Street Blues” by unheralded Texas bluesman, Art Eskridge.

But, along with these aforementioned long forgotten gems or rarities are interspersed daunting musical pieces by artists whom Ernie holds near and dear, like Delta bluesman, Skip James (1902-1969), who played in an idiosyncratic open D-minor tuning with a three finger picking technique (DADFAD), giving his melodies a mournful quality. During his hour long presentation in April at the food coop in Takoma Park, Ernie not only tackled a 1931 Paramount 78 rpm release by James, “If You Haven’t Any Hay,” but also his 1964 “Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues,” first recorded in Falls Church,VA, by famed folklorist, Dick Spottswood (now of WAMU 88.5 FM), for Melodeon records. Another favorite of Ernie’s is Jacksonville born, Chicago-based Blind Blake, an improvisational guitar wizard of dance oriented music who seemed to disappear after recording an astounding 79 sides for Paramount (Grafton,WI) from 1926-1932. And Ernie certainly livened up the set with some classic Blake, who was fond of unpredictable, multiple changes within each song---“Police Dog Blues,” “Chump Man Blues,” and the often sampled “Diddie Wa Diddie.” But no engagement by Ernie is without homage to his personal idol, the Piedmont blues exemplar of the highest order, Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972). The celebrated one time Harlem street singer on that day was represented by his ragtime composition, “Slow Drag (Cincinnati Flow Rag),” which Ernie adroitly dispatched by retuning his guitar to Davis’ unusual (and thorny) E-B-G-D-A-E configuration, as well as reverting to the blind man’s characteristic two finger (thumb and forefinger) approach.

Aside from his prodigious gifts with the instrument, what makes Ernie Hawkins all the more intriguing is how he’s managed to eek out an decent existence without that dreaded day job, no mean feat in the world of entertainment today, wherein many of former live acts have been replaced by cheaper DJs or karaoke emcees. And the venues themselves have been diminishing at a rapid rate due to stricter DUI enforcement. When talking to Ernie, I sense this world weariness in his voice. And why not?  He’s a positive workaholic, seemingly always on his way to his next gig, be it here or abroad (he recently returned from a junket in France then on to Ottawa, Ontario). He may book himself or maybe his calendar may be filled in by dates provided (and funded) by the highly selective Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour organization. Certainly, during all his peregrinations, he is helped mightily by his soul mate, Nancy Orr, who seems to tend to all the mundane details. And then, when he’s not on the road, he’s extremely occupied   giving lessons or workshops in guitar technique.

But amazingly enough, pushing 62, when a lot of “boomers” (including myself) are technologically challenged by the computer, Ernie is most assuredly as “plugged in” to the internet culture as much as can be. He’s taken all the necessary steps to market himself and his talent, which includes a web site peddling an LP, his four CDs, a book, T-shirts, and a slew of instructional DVDs, the latter of which not only teach his own guitar method but also those of his guitar heroes, especially the different aspects of the craft of Rev. Gary Davis---gospel, rags, ragtime, and blues. But again, indicating the versatility of Ernie, there are videos offered demonstrating the style of Lightnin’ Hopkins, the stellar Georgia born Blind Willie McTell (1901-1959), and the great Navasota, TX, fiddler/guitarist, Mance Lipscomb (1895-1976). And to further his exposure, Ernie has posted at least two YouTube entries, his rendition of the Harlem Hamfats’ “What You Gonna Do” and his version of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Slow Blues in A,” each which gives the viewer a tantalizing tidbit of the DVD from which it was culled.  Yet, if these two cyberspace locations don’t advertise him sufficiently, there’s always facebook with constant updates and comments. Almost needless to say, there are also ample opportunities to download certain of his numbers in the MP3 format.

By the way, Ernie has a Ph.D., and even in these bleak economic times, there may be other enticing (and less trying) employment possibilities. But so far, using every means at his disposal, whatever it takes, he’s been successful at making a living while doing what he loves most.

And make no mistake about it. Though he’s not the most dynamic performer, Ernie plays from the heart. Not much for showing off, stage antics, and shenanigans, like strumming behind his back like Snooks Eaglin or picking with his teeth like Walter “Wolfman” Washington, he’s more about substance than style. Always the perfectionist, he’s a picture of concentration as he hits all the right notes with a workmanlike precision. And this serious, deliberate, musician never fails to deliver the goods and, most of all, with feeling.

Ernie Hawkins was born in Pittsburgh on September 22, 1947. During his formative years, he first became interested in old time music due to a caretaker, Pete, on his Uncle Willie’s farm (where Ernie worked during summers), a former member of the Lilly Brothers string band. It was Pete who became his mentor, introducing him to the rudiments of such instruments as the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and (percussive) bones. “My first guitar was a 1919 New York Martin that was in the attic of my friend’s aunt. I bought it for $80. And my second was a 30s era National that I purchased for $35 from a guy known as ‘Professor’ who ran a junk store in nearby Waynesburg [about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh],” said Ernie, who regretted selling the latter to blues legend, Son House. In high school, Ernie was absorbing quite a bit of music, even rock and roll, from friends who had record collections but he focused primarily upon banjo works. Soon he began hanging out at Walsh’s bar in East Liberty, PA, and sitting in with popular bluegrass band, Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers, until the wee hours of the morning. “I was really getting into acoustic music and very early on I especially preferred finger picking,” he added.

Dismayed by the lack of outlets for acoustic presentations in Pittsburgh, Ernie and friend, while still in high school, opened a coffee house, the Shady Grove, wherein their girlfriends worked as waitresses. Soon they were not only performing there but also booking like minded individuals. “During that time, I was constantly looking for musicians and even hitchhiked down to Atlanta, Georgia, in hopes of finding Blind Willie McTell. But then I sadly discovered that he had died in 1959,”said Ernie, who played for tips on that particular excursion but soon ran out of money. When I inquired about parental supervision at this juncture of his life, he quickly responded, “By then, they had no say in it. I was basically out of control and they pretty much had to go along with it.” 

But Ernie, after having listened to a vinyl album, above all else, wanted to meet Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972). So, right out of high school in 1965 he made plans to visit New York. And luckily for him, a musician friend of his who lived in Brooklyn apprised him that Davis’ number was actually listed in the greater New York phone book. “It was AX-1-7609. I remember it to this day. But the first time I called, no one answered,” he said. Nonetheless, he was determined to make a go of it in the Big Apple, especially after his girlfriend’s grandfather offered him a position as clerk in an office for a clothing manufacturer on 34th St in Manhattan. “I was making the princely sum of $52.50 a week. So after finding a room, there wasn’t a whole lot left over to go night clubbing, especially after paying for guitar lessons with Rev. Gary Davis,” he added.

By that time with the folk revival in full swing, artists like Peter, Paul, & Mary, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were covering the material of Davis and, as a consequence, he was receiving royalties which allowed him to relocate from the South Bronx to Queens after having moved with his second wife to New York (Mamaroneck) from Durham, NC, in 1940. “When I got there, he had already become the subject of a lot of attention and was slowly beginning to establish himself. In fact, he had acquired management and no longer had to play outdoors to support himself,” said Ernie. Of his year-long sojourn in New York, Ernie recalled the many times he took public transportation--the subway, the elevated train, and then the bus-- uptown to see this acoustic demigod. Eventually, they struck up a firm friendship.

As a teacher, this “sanctified singer” who had long ago “gotten religion,” naturally embraced a wide repertoire of gospel songs. But he didn’t mind imparting his expertise in the realm of ragtime, since he matured as a musician during the Jazz Age of the 20s. But, perhaps most surprising to Ernie was that he was able to enlighten him about the structure and basic elements of the blues, although in an indirect fashion which circumvented his playing them. Evidently, this circuitous means of instruction assuaged his conscience about being instrumental in replicating the “devil’s music.” 

Ernie confessed that emulating other country blues figures presented no extraordinary difficulties for him but Davis’ mode of playing proved particularly vexing, almost impossible to unravel. “There’s never going to be another Gary Davis. He was an absolute genius, really other worldly with the guitar. And no one can ever hope to penetrate the layers of his music, getting to the bottom it. There was simply so much going on at the same time. I will always be in awe of him,” asserted Ernie. Nonetheless, despite Ernie’s feelings of inadequacy to the task of plumbing the depths of Davis’ music, over the years he had been so closely identified with Davis that producer Andy Cohen in 2002 saw fit to have him contribute two gospel tracks, “Will There Be Stars in My Crown,” and “I Am the Light of this World (with Maria Muldaur),” to a compilation in homage to this Piedmont prodigy, Gary Davis Style: The Legacy of Rev. Gary Davis, an album which included other protégés and disciples such as Cephas & Wiggins, Dave Van Ronk, Ian Buchanan, Mary Flower, “Philadelphia” Jerry Ricks, and Peter, Paul, & Mary.

And to this day, Ernie feels compelled to perpetuate the memory of this most gifted guitarist. In fact, in the year 2004 alone, there were two huge jamborees in which Ernie participated that were dedicated to him. The first, titled “If I Had My Way: Early Home Recordings of Reverend Gary Davis” was held at Kaufman Center, Merkin Hall (part of Lincoln Center) in New York City on January 20, as part of the New York Guitar Festival, with performances by ex-Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen (who was instructed at Antioch College by Davis pupil, Ian Buchanan 1939-1982), and another famous student of Davis’ Roy Book Binder. The trio later reprised this presentation on August 28 at Kaukonen’s haven, Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio, a jamboree which has become an annual affair. And surely there will be more tributes in the future, so influential was this bluesman.

“After I left New York, I was trying to find myself. I even hitchhiked out west,” said Ernie. In this voyage of discovery, Ernie would attempt to absorb as much he could about indigenous blues genres. Strangely enough, while in Los Angeles, he witnessed a show by Louisiana-born Robert Pete Williams (1914-1980), which had a profound effect upon him. “He was fresh out of Angola Prison, and I remember him playing in this oddly metered African rhythm. It just knocked me out,” added Ernie, who would later hang out and exchange ideas with Williams when he would appear in festivals in Pittsburgh.

“But however far I roamed, I would always return to New York. Often, I would bring Gary back with me to Pittsburgh. I even have a pile of tapes, field recordings that I made of him. I’m just starting to sort them out,” said Ernie, whose website displays a faded 1968 photograph of him accompanying Davis to the stage of Carnegie Music Hall in “Iron City.” As luck would have it during one memorable social call back to the Big Apple, he fortuitously ran into the great Delta slide exemplar, Son House, at an instrumental music store. “Needless to say, I wasn’t going to let this opportunity escape without learning a few licks from him,” Ernie added.

In the late 60s, he again was living in Pittsburgh having decided to pursue a B.A. degree in philosophy which he ultimately earned from Pitt in 1973. “I was studying hard but found a little time to play the blues professionally, even some electric guitar,” said Ernie. About that time frame, he made the acquaintance of another bluesman, Bobby Jones (1925-1996), whose father, Sonny (as did Gary Davis), during the 30s made some recordings with the prolific Durham, NC, Piedmont guitarist, Blind Boy Fuller. In 1970, Bobby recorded a single, “Welfare Blues” (Gemini #101) as Nyles Jones, as well as an LP, My South/My Blues, both of which became strong regional sellers according Jones a legendary status in the Three Rivers area and landing him on the slate of several blues festivals starring such artists as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Mance Lipscomb, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Reverend Gary Davis. Denied royalties, Jones became disenchanted with the music business and eventually moved to Baltimore in the late 70s where he had already reinvented himself as Guitar Gabriel, living and performing in the Congress Hotel (with its basement Marble Bar venue) on West Franklin St., not far from where his father made his last recording on Orchid records in 1950. Often through his association with Jones, who acted as a conduit, Ernie was able to not only meet but also sit in with these acoustic wonders, including Mississippi Fred McDowell, when they rolled into town to fulfill concert obligations.

After completing his undergraduate degree in 1973, Ernie moved to Dallas, TX, that same year to complete his studies leading to a doctorate in phenomenological philosophy which was granted in 1978 by the University of Dallas. During his stay in that Texas metropolis, he also furthered his musical education, as the club scene during that era was quite vibrant. “There were a lot of musical acts coming to town like the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins there and encountered the great Art Eskridge, who learned his licks from another sensational acoustic player, the rather unknown Poor Bill Miller, a 50s Oklahoma City resident,” said Ernie.

After acquiring his advanced degree, which he declared “non-negotiable as too esoteric,” he discovered that needed to take some time to “clear his head,” so he moved about experimenting with the electric guitar and bands of all configurations. The next year in Pittsburgh, he recorded and released his first single, “Harrisburg Radiation Blues.” In 1980, Ernie’s reputation was such that a producer in that city approached him about a project involving traditional material, an undertaking which resulted in his first LP, Ragtime Signatures, on the Wildebeest label. This first album showcases three Hawkins originals, including the title track.

In the early 80s, still in Pittsburgh, Ernie latched on to a few rockabilly bands, a new brand of music for him which he immensely enjoyed playing. In about 1984, a friend called and invited him to live in Austin, TX, and Ernie, curious about the ever burgeoning music scene there, accepted. “Yeah, I did play at Antone’s for an anniversary party. But, overall, it was tough getting gigs, as the competition was fierce. I even had to take a day job as a substitute teacher,” Ernie admitted. Toward the end of the decade, his mother’s illness forced him to return to Pittsburgh after which he joined the R&B act, (singer) Gary Belloma & the Blues Bombers, an outfit (still in existence) with which he would remain nine years. “With Gary, I was exclusively playing the electric guitar and we worked hard, performing all over the area. During my time with them, we did cut a couple of CDs, [Bombs Away, 1992 and Attitude Adjustment, 1995], vanity type productions, which served as our calling cards. In fact, we may have thrown them off the stage into the audience as a promotion,” Ernie said with a laugh.

In 1996, Ernie quit the band to pursue a solo career. “During the mid-90s, I felt another folk revival building; so I trusted my instincts by reverting to my acoustic playing, which I had wanted to do all along. I guess I made the right decision,” he said. And since then, he has gone at it alone, except for an occasional dalliance with a combo (which sometimes includes a tuba), such as his appearance in July, 2008, in Mellon Park in Pittsburgh as part of the Rootz Festival (along with another headliner, Steve Forbert).

In that same “breakout” year of 1996, Ernie recorded his first CD, Blues Advice on the Orchard label, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of his beloved mentor, Davis, and included three of Davis’ tunes. In 2000 came the first of three CDs on his Say Mo’ logo, the eclectic Bluesified, which not only contains three more Davis tracks but also Merle Travis’ sacred standard, “I Am A Pilgrim,” as well as a cameo by Maria Muldaur. Ernie Hawkins returned the favor a year later appearing on Muldaur’s own Grammy and Handy nominated album, Richland Woman Blues. By 2002, Ernie had completed Mean Little Poodle ( the title cut of which he penned) but the endeavor could just as easily have been christened “Sightless Acoustic Guitar Marvels,” as Ernie demonstrates the different styles of Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, and, of course, Blind Gary Davis. Ernie’s most recent CD is the 2005, Rags and Bones, and within are the most diversified selections of the lot, with an emphasis on finger picking. Mississippi blues are represented by numbers by Mississippi John Hurt and Jimmie Rodgers (a.k.a. The Singing Brakeman) and there are three Texas blues figures, Mance Lipscomb, Art Eskridge, and Henry Thomas (1874-1960?), whose limited output nonetheless has been appropriated by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. But in addition in this latter package, Ernie even tackles a couple of jazz tunes by Louis Armstrong.

Yes, Ernie Hawkins has come a long way in a span of thirteen years. And not only has he appeared on several nationally syndicated broadcasts like “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Mountain Stage,” and “WoodSong’s Old-Time Radio Hour” but also he has been written up by some prestigious publications as well, like Blues Revue, Dirty Linen (2006), Acoustic Guitar, Vintage Guitar, and Sing Out! The recognition is, indeed, building.

So, appreciate Ernie Hawkins while you can. He won’t be around forever. You may not like the traditional, old time, music he plays, but he’s in on the secret--everything that’s out there today, whether it be hip hop, C&W, or R&B, sprang from these sources. And, as a link to the past, he’s been one of the lucky ones to have gotten this news first hand, straight from the horse’s mouth. And if you pay attention, you just might learn a thing or two.

------ Larry Benicewicz, B.B.S.

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