Our Guiding Light and Blues Mentor
Elmore “Whole Hawg” Hawkins was born to the dust and oppressive heat of the Mississippi Delta. He was welcomed into a poor sharecropper’s shack one late August night in 1946, son of George Washington Hawkins and his long-suffering wife Elvira. George rather liked the hooch, it seems, but he was a good man at heart.
The family was dirt poor but proud, and Elmore grew up learning to be virtuous and hard-working. Thing is, though, he never took to the fields. He was always humming and thinking about things sharecroppers don’t generally have the time or energy to ponder: heartache, love, politics, the meaning of life, and partying. Most importantly, he couldn’t stop thinking about where the road that ran through the plantation ended up.
One day Elmore was on an errand at the general store, which was next to a juke joint. Outside on a bench in the Delta sun sat a wrinkled, deep brown old man. He held a length of two-by-four that had a bent-over nail at one end. A wire was tied to the nail and run over a Tabasco bottle, then over a block of wood to another nail at the other end.
Curious, Elmore sat down next to the old man. “Wanna hear?” said the old man. “Sure,” said Elmore. The old man produced a battered old table knife, touched it to the wire, and began to pluck while moving the knife back and forth. Elmore was thunderstruck. He went home and started to make his own instrument, which the old man had told him was a Diddleybow.
He quickly mastered the Diddleybow, ringing out the field hollers and spirituals he’d heard before. He moved on to a beat-up old six-string guitar and was soon reminding people of Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. His songs evolved into what would eventually be called the Delta blues: songs of struggle, repression, the road, wild women, and drink.
Inevitably that road through the plantation called to him, and he lit out toward Kansas City and eventually Chicago. He earned his keep playing juke joints and Sunday dinners along the way. He learned some hard lessons and had some fun besides, but he couldn’t settle down.
Elmore arrived in Chicago’s south side on a cold November day. He didn’t know anybody, and nobody knew him. His first month was spent sleeping in the stock room of a bar on East 87th, playing for his supper and his keep. Things got better slowly, and then he adopted the electrified guitar style created by a guy named Muddy Waters. He eventually met Muddy, and played in his band for a few months.
Elmore drifted around Chicago for many years, playing with damn near everybody. He was known as the best sideman in the business. Then he just disappeared.
Maybe. They say you can still hear Elmore’s bending D string wailing in the wind on Chicago’s dirty early morning streets. Some have said they’ve seen him lurking backstage in the smoke and shadows of the blues clubs. And some – just a select few – have heard him whisper in their ears: “Keep it real. Keep it real.”