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Monday Suggestion

In Matt, Monday's Suggestion, Music on October 25, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

Ted Hawkins

American vagabond-troubadour type blues/folk singer born in Biloxi, MS on October 28th, 1936 and died from a stroke in Inglewood, CA on January 1, 1995.

There isn’t much information handy on Ted Hawkins that would leave you feeling comfortable believing that you know too much more about his life than whatever this one sentence above suggests. It’ll be his birthday in a few days.

The two that are the most prominent on the internet for being recycled, book sleeve Author Introduction style chunks of paragraphs, tell it like this: worn-out and down-trodden genius can never catch a break, or at least a break on which he could capitalize because whenever he did some unfortunate sickness, or the inherent restlessness in his soul that was the likely source (or married to the source of his genius) would unravel whatever preliminary success he was mounting before it swelled, so that the Venice Beach Boardwalk, where he earned his living busking, trapped in one sense, utterly free in another, defined him. And when it looked like he was going to finally take that next step into the fold of American musical consciousness, he died a sudden death.

These come from Wikipedia (which was tagged for not citing any references, although it had two meagre sources on the bottom) and CMT.com, both of which are full of sentences and summaries like (two from each, respectively)…

  • “Hawkins was an enigmatic figure through most of his career; he split his time between his adopted hometown of Venice Beach, California where he was a mostly anonymous street performer, and Europe, where he and his songs were better known and well received in clubs and small concert halls” 
  • “Hawkins claimed the rasp in his voice came from damage done by years of singing in the sand and spray of the boardwalk”- This one stands out specifically.
  • “Hawkins’ existence was no day in the park. Born into abject poverty in Mississippi an abused and illiterate child, Hawkins was sent to reform school when he was 12 years old”
  • “Roaming from Chicago to Philadelphia to Buffalo…Hawkins left the frigid weather behind in 1966, purchasing a one-way ticket to L.A.”

CMT replaces the term “dollar bills” with “greenbacks”, describes his voice as “melismatic”, and calls his death “a bout of cruel irony” because it happened the same year his album The Next Hundred Years came out, during what seemed to be his break through.

There’s a movie, released in ’98, that put together footage of him playing shows, and the synopsis delivers the same narrative in a quicker, more sweeping pace with a more convincing voice, the opening sentence of which ends with “he was often called the world’s greatest street singer.”

He wore a black glove on his fret hand because it would bleed from how hard and how long he played. He went to Parchman Farm, a.k.a. Mississippi State Penitentary in Parchman, when he was 15 for stealing a leather jacket.

An Overdose on Fingal Cocoa– “…the unwanted son of a prostitute and alcoholic mother and an absent father.”

He has a posthumous album titled Suffer No More that came out in ’98.

Batesmeyer.com– “Playing his acoustic Martin guitar and singing with a voice of sandpaper and honey…”

His name was harkened just last week in NY Times, to provide color to a feature in its Regional section on The Rent Is Too Damn High Candidate for NY State Governor, Jimmy McMillan, in a pretty transparent attempt at being smartly-hip, or hiply-smart, or professionally hiply-smart, or visa versa, that just comes off as flippant.

So, moving on from my long introduction explaining why I’m not going to try to explain this singer to you, just provide some examples of his singing; here he is performing an old country classic, There Stands the Glass, which was originally recorded by Webb Pierce, but has covered by people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, George Strait, and Conway Twitty, none of which, including Pierce’s, sound even close to the depth of Hawkins’. Taking the others seriously after listening to Hawkins is like reading a 19th century novel and trying to imagine the dialogue being spoken in a real conversation. His voice carries the despondency and total resignation to depravity of which the lyrics are symbolic. Most songs about drinking, that are supposed to be about the pains of drinking and alcoholism, usually ended up having the opposite effect that cautionary tales are supposed to have and become sexy and appealing in how they promise to make you feel overwhelming emotion. The emotion in Hawkins’ voice is overwhelming, but he also succeeds in actually conveying a despair that we’ve all felt that is damn near impossible to get across to another person.

In the beginning, Hawkins screams the opening lyric and it sounds just like some crazy old guy trying too hard to make his point. By the glass becomes this monolith standing over you, encompassing you in its shadow. There’s that odd wallowing sort of comfort, that makes you think you probably shouldn’t make a habit of playing it, however.

In this case, actually, the original CCR recording, and the way John Fogerty sings on it, is the better version. Hawkins voice just seems as though it would be perfect for this song. And even thought it’s not a good as the original, it still hits the mark that a cover should, which I guess means, it makes people who never liked a song begin to like that song.

According to all the sources I read, Hawkins had a following in England and Europe. This clip is from a session at the BBC Radio 3 with famous DJ Andy Kershaw.

-Matt

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