Interview of Ernie Hawkins
by Monica Yasher

Posted on 3/17/2010 by Monica Yasher

(Pittsburgh, PA)Ernie Hawkins is a native Pittsburgher. Ernie left home at a young age to venture to the city of New York. His quest was to find and learn from the Reverend Gary Davis, which he did find. Ernie shared that his study of the Reverend’s guitar technique did not come easy or quickly for him. But he felt lucky to have the opportunity to be born at a time when these great blues artists lived and be afforded the privilege of learning the blues from them.

Ernie has brought the blues forward by further developing the teaching of the Reverend Davis and applying music technique in his own teachings. Ernie feels that guitarists need to preserve the finger style of this guitar technique. Yet, he believes that an artist can be innovative, as it is the foundation of many genres, such as country, jazz, and even Rock and Roll.

Let me share what Ernie Hawkins had to say.

Monica: Hello Ernie. This is Monica Yasher from American Blues News. How are you?

Ernie: Good. How are you?

M: Great! Ernie I’m excited to be interviewing you. I have the interview broken down into segments. We’ll talk a bit about your history. I’d like to talk to you about performing. I’d like to talk blues to you. I would like you to tell me about your guitar style, and your new CD. I read that the Rev. Gary Davis greatly affected you. I also know that you teach and are a performer. Do you have a story of anyone coming up to you, to let you know that you have impacted them as the Rev. Gary Davis did for you?

E: I get that a lot, particularly from the teaching. If you go to the website to the blues advice place. People send them to us. We keep some of them out there. Page after page out there. One of the things as far as the teaching thing that I did, was a series of DVD’s that I did for Homespun called the CAGED system. When I came up playing, nobody, unless we studied a little bit of music in high school, or a little bit of piano, nobody approached this guitar playing from a technical musical theory point of view. Artists were always playing totally by ear, ompletely by tradition by ear.

Typically blues guys, a lot of them, were not musically educated at all, as great as they might have been. The more you get into playing just regular guitar out of what you know, you start to get interested in that musical thing. This CAGED thing bridges the gap between guitar players like me that grew up on oral tradition and music theory. Not that you necessarily have to read, it is a way of understanding the guitar intuitively. It is based on music theory, and it puts the guitar together for people. It did for me. So it’s my way to figure out how exactly the guitar worked. This came out of it, and I was able to express it and teach it. It has been really helpful for a lot of people and I’m proud of it.

M: Great! When you say you have been able to teach and express it, is the root of it from you or from Rev. Gary Davis? Are you rearticulating what the Rev. Gary Davis taught you or did you determine how to teach it?

E: Let me put it this way, Gary Davis understood it. He used it all the time. He understood how chords worked and how music worked in a deep way. The way he could play up and down the neck in any key or with any kind of song, rags or popular songs. The way he could do all that, he understood all that. But he did not articulate that. But it was all in there. But he never explained it.

When I was learning from him and the people I know that was learning from him, we were just concentrating on just trying to learn the style a little bit and some of the songs. We never really asked him about the guitar or how do you put these chords together. Or, I noticed that you do this run, so we never really worked that out. Inside of that music, the understanding that enabled him to play so brilliantly, is what I tried to pull out just by explaining it through regular music theory. That kind of gave it a grounding in music theory, music theory which keeps everything together.

M: You spent a lot of time with Reverend Gary Davis. Would you like to share a special moment? It seemed he totally impacted your life. But, was there one moment where you went Yeah.

E: Yeah. There was one thing. I had been with him a while in New York, and I was heading back to Pittsburgh just to visit. I took the subway and a bus to his house, and I stopped by to visit on my way to the airport. I didn’t have that much time. Usually I had a lot of time, and I would go see him and give him as much time as possible. I didn’t have a lot of time, and we were sitting there just talking and I asked if he could show me a song. He showed me 'Florida Blues', which is a song on my first CD, "Blues Advice" in Instrumental. He showed it to me in just a few minutes. Just a few minutes to show me how the song worked, and I got it right away and had to get up and go to the bus to the airport. I just thanked him and said goodbye.

I didn’t even think about until the next day. When I got to Pittsburgh and had a chance to pickup the guitar and sat down and played it, I realized that I was getting to know his style and this music pretty well. One thing that I know I learned from him, because I didn’t use a tape recorder or write anything down...I felt that it was really important to try to remember everything. When I was coming up and learning how to play guitar, you would learn how to play from somebody. That person would show you what you wanted to learn. Usually they wouldn’t show you three times. They showed you once and then they said this is it and they moved on. You had to remember that. So you learned how to remember things, just because that’s how you had to learn it. If you didn’t remember, you wouldn’t learn it. I look back at that particular time when I saw him and learned that song, as being a sign of realizing that I was getting somewhere. I just immediately got what that song was about and how it worked. That was a good question.

M: Thank you. In regard to you coming back to Pittsburgh, I read that you had a group of college guys that you went out with and you heard a lot of great bluegrass in Pittsburgh. They told your mother they would take good care of you. Did your mother back you in your music?

E: No. I must have been...not necessarily wild...but pretty independent. I was itching to get out of the house. My mother just said to me years later, I felt like I couldn’t control you and tell you what to do. I hoped that I could help you enough that you wouldn’t get in any trouble or bad situations. She half supported me. There was somebody looking after me.

M: Wow. You seem like such a quiet, mild mannered man. I can’t imagine! (we laughed). Based on what you said, for your career would you have done anything differently or did every piece of your life take you to where you needed to go?

E: Yes and no. I guess you can always look back and say if I would have done this differently, and then everything would have ended up differently. You wouldn’t be where you are at. I feel really really lucky that I was just alive when some of these blues guys, particularly Gary Davis, was alive. I was able to spend as much time with somebody like him as I could. I felt so lucky about that.

You hear Gary Davis songs, and anywhere in the world you go somebody is going to play a Gary Davis song. A lot of that is because of Jorma who loves Gary Davis and is in Hot Tuna. He records some of his songs. He is so famous that he is a rock and roll star. I’ll go to Italy and someone will play Jorma’s version of a Gary Davis song. I think that is wonderful personally! Because he was famous, he would get that music out to other people. And, I think we both feel the same way. This is just a privilege to be able to get closer to this music.

M: One thing that I had a question on is, it seemed that you hated the whole school experience yet somehow you are sitting on a PhD?

E: I did in high school and grade school. I just felt out of place. I didn’t fit in from the beginning. I don’t know. I always planned to get an education and study stuff, but it didn’t seem that the stuff I was studying in high school…there were some things like a history class. If someone got me interested, there were things that made it a different story. I would become studious. I did wonder into college and started studying things I thought I would be interested in. I just kept doing it, because it was interesting.

M: Do you have a message for kids that were in the same place that you where?

E: I do talk to kids. When I have a chance to go to a class and answer questions, I do try to tell them of my high school experience and music. I think when I go to a school today, kids seem pretty comfortable with school. They seem to like it a lot more than I did. That’s a good thing.

M: It is. I have two children. They like school but one struggles with it. And, as a parent, it frustrates me that there is a whole world of topics out there to be discovered. It seems to me that music or art is never presented enough. There are many fields of careers out there.

E: Music is really important. When I was talking about learning music orally and training myself to remember things. A lot of that had to do with me going back to school. Whatever music does to your mind is a good thing. Nothing is more important than music to kids, I think.

M: Let’s move to performance. I have seen you perform, and it looks like you are in deep thought. What are you thinking about when you are playing?

E: I’m not thinking. I’m just playing. Where is my mind? My mind is in my right thumb. It is in my right thumb. It sounds strange for a guitar player thing. For me, that is where everything is, the rhythm and how everything works. If I’m thinking about anything at all, I’m thinking about that thumb and how it is working and where it is moving to. That keeps me in the music all the time. If I’m singing. I’m just singing really. Sometimes where is your mind when you are playing? Sometimes it’s in the audience. You are looking at people and you are moving outward. I don’t know. This is a difficult question. I’m not self conscious at that time.

M: I worked with a guitarist once who was backing me, and he said he was going to make this instrument sound as beautiful as he could possibly make it sound. That’s what he told me he was thinking. That’s when I realized that people don’t always think about the chords. It’s a feel. For you it’s the tempo and that thumb. I guess everyone is at a different place when they play.

E: That’s for sure.

M: They say in songwriting it takes ten years to be a master. Do you think for someone that wants to learn what you do, that it would be fair to say that if you work really hard at it, you could become a master at this form of guitar in ten years?

E: It depends on who it is. Some people are born with it. I don’t know how to answer that. If you are passionate about something, you are going to spend a lot of time doing it. It will really mean something to you, and you will want to do something really good. If you want to be able to do it, you will spend a lot of time doing it, and find out how much you have. It was never much of problem for me to do it. I was happy to do it. I feel lucky doing it.

M: Do you still practice?

E: I play all the time. I learn new songs and work on stuff. Always learning new stuff all the time.

M: With this style of guitar playing, do you think you can be new and innovative with it or should it be preserved history?

E: I definitely think both of those things are true. I definitely think that if you are in a style of playing guitar, and that style has a deep history, it is great to go into that history and bring out those songs in that history. That’s what the whole style is, particularly Gary Davis who was so instrumental in making this style what it is.

The thing is, whoever is playing that style, is always going to bring it up and move it on like finger picking. This style of finger picking is what became all that kind of Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins finger picking. Jazz players played that way. Contemporary kind of people played that kind of finger picking. The thing about that piedmont style, is that you can play anything. Anything. It’s just such an amazing universal style.

Gary Davis played gospel music, country music, contemporary jazz. He played the blues, marches, popular songs. You had to be able to play everything. He was really good at that. He could play any song that ever came out, or anything anyone wanted to hear.

This style is never going to die. It is always going to be dreamed on and even if some kid picks it up and learns how to play rock and roll with it, and never even listens to or is aware of the history, it is still that style. He still learned it from somebody. That style has to have the history preserved. It is a beautiful thing. That style made a lot of other music wonderful. You have to be yourself and play whatever you are moved to play.

M: Thank you. What is your new CD that is coming out called?

E: It is called "Whinin' Boy". There are some blues on it. There is a lot of twenties jazz on it, Louis Armstrong tunes, some old songs. There’s a great clarinet player called Paul Cosentino on the album.

M: How long has this been in the making?

E: Just a few months.

M: Did you write anything?

E: I wrote a few songs in my style that I like.

M: Do you have a favorite one it?

E: Probably 'Wine and Boy'. I’m not sure yet.

M: Were any of them challenging?

E: It’s always challenging. If you are a guitar player, you are your own worst critic. You have to do it until you get it right. You can’t complain about your work. You can’t say, “It’s hard work!”

M: But it seems for the artists that I interview, that it is hard work! It is!

E: Oh yeah. You want to be as good as you can.

M: What would you want to say about you and your music? What is your legacy?

E: Just keeping this style alive. Yeah. Keeping the style alive.
I feel a little bit obligated, because the Reverend tried hard to teach me these things. And there I was, an eighteen year old kid trying to desperately learn. He tried very hard teaching it, so I tried very hard learning it.

M: It seems those sessions weren’t all that fun. They were a master and a student and learning. Were they?

E: They were definitely sitting there learning, working, and struggling. Trying to understand and get it right. He would teach by just playing, and go over variations and variations of things.

M: It sounds like you did him proud!

E: I hope so! I hope so! I appreciate the interview.

M: I think we have a good interview here. Thank you Ernie.

Pittsburgh is my home town. What other city can boast a Stanley Cup and Superbowl all in the same year? And I am proud to say, Pittsburgh is one of the biggest blues towns in the nation. Do you know that all of the interviews I have conducted are within a one hour drive from the city of Pittsburgh? If you would like to have the flavor of our own Pittsburgh Blues, and Ernie is a contributor on the CD, please consider purchasing the CD, "Blues from the Burgh". The sale of this CD is a fundraiser for the Blues Society of Western Pennsylvania. If you would be so kind, help them out! Thanks for considering!

If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy reading another acoustic artist who knew the Reverend Gary Davis, David Bromberg & Jorma Kaukonen.

Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

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Monica is our executive director and artist interview specialist. You can catch Monica singing the blues around Pittsburgh or working on some country music songs in Nashville.

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