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Blues guitarist teaches his craft with musical workshop

| Friday, Jan. 10, 2003

As a boy growing up in the 1950s, Ernie Hawkins was fascinated by music.

Under the tutelage of the caretaker on his uncle's farm in Ruff Creek, Greene County, he quickly honed his fingerpicking skills on the country guitar, mandolin and banjo.

It was during his teenage years when Hawkins began to realize blues was the ticket.

"I always loved the blues," he says. "It has always been the best way for me to express myself. And, it's great for someone who loves fingerpicking ... a natural for me."

So after high school, he moved from his home in the Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh to New York City.

His goal• To locate and study with his mentor - blues guitarist, the Rev. Gary Davis.

Hawkins accomplished his goal ... beginning a sojourn into this rich American musical heritage, which included many of the all-time blues greats: Davis, Son House, Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell and Arthur Crudup, to name a few.

And, as one of a handful fortunate enough to study with the old masters, he returned to Point Breeze determined to share his knowledge with other aspiring musicians.

To that end, Hawkins will lead a one-hour blues workshop at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg. The workshop will be followed by a live performance at 7:30 p.m.

The event is being sponsored by the Westmoreland Jazz Society, and will be presented in collaboration with the Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival and made possible through the Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour.

Hawkins says it's not easy to teach very much in one workshop session. However, with a few tricks of the trade, the basics can be learned quickly - especially if the participant knows his or her way around the guitar.

"I do have a method where I can give a student a beginning idea of how chords move up and down the neck (of the guitar), and how you can play blues in different positions," he explains. "So, people can actually come out of one workshop learning something they can use."

One might think it takes a certain talent to master the East Coast Piedmont and Texas fingerpicking-style blues.

"I don't think it takes any talent to play blues. I'm living proof," Hawkins says, joking.

How so?

"Blues is very different from classical guitar," he explains. "You don't have to worry about technique as much. You just play. With classical music, there is a lot of technical things. And, you have to read music. Blues is something you learn by ear ... or by heart."

Although Hawkins has several college degrees - an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in phenomenological psychology - his dedication to blues never wavered.

"When I got out of graduate school, I wanted to take some time off, because it was very intense," he says. "I never really planned on becoming a professional musician. But, I got swept up in it. Time passed. And more time passed. And, I was doing better and better, so it was one of those things that just kind of happened."

Hawkins has several albums to his credit. The latest, "Mean Little Poodle," was released last October. It followed "Bluesified" (2001), and "Blues Advice" (1996). He also has put together several blues instructional videos.

In his spare time, Hawkins loves to travel. He recently wrapped up an all-acoustic national tour with singer and songwriter Maria Muldaur.

"It was fabulous. Nonstop. I think we went 12,000 miles in less than a month and a half," he says.

What does the future hold for Hawkins• "More travel," he says. "And, yeah, I'm thinking about doing a new CD. There are actually three or four I'm considering trying to make in the next couple of years."

Ernie Hawkins

  • Presented by the Westmoreland Jazz Society
  • 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with a free jazz workshop 6 to 7 p.m.
  • Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg
  • $10 for WJS members; $15 for nonmembers; $3 for students. Tickets available at the door
  • (724) 837-1500, ext. 27

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