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Piedmont Blues Interpreter

Hawkins was playing Dock Boggs and Charlie Patton blues on his newly acquired prize when a friend introduced him to the music of Rev. Gary Davis, a blues man who began his career in the 1920s and who was still sporadically recording. Davis' unique style forever changed Hawkins' musical world. Hawkins has since become the premier interpreter of Davis' music on the contemporary blues scene.

"Incredible music, great ease, tremendous singing," Hawkins says, describing his mentor's Piedmont-based style. "It's a whole different kind of guitar playing, really. Gary Davis took [the Piedmont style] to a different level. He had bass voices and middle harmony voices and treble melody voices. The way he could do that against his singing … Just an incredibly complex, deep kind of thing."

After high school, Hawkins went to New York City in 1965 to find the elderly blues man. Davis took him under his wing, glad to teach his music to an eager and talented fan. Hawkins also experienced the reverend's spiritual side.

"He'd tell me every few days the Lord would send him a song," Hawkins recalls. "He was tapping into a deep well, let's say it that way."

Hawkins now uses Davis' music as a foundation for his repertoire that blends rags and gospel with African and Appalachian music in a show that mixes music with history.

"I try to talk about what I'm doing just to give a little background," he says, "so it doesn't just exist in a vacuum." — Ames Arnold

Ernie Hawkins plays Arthur's Inn of Virginia, 5215 W. Broad St., at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 6. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Chicago Cy opens. Check for more information.

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