No Radio Free Lunch!

Music, etc. by Eric D. Johnson

Inevitability, Possibility, and Rock Historiography

I’m writing about the Hawks, circa 1959-1963, specifically about a performance by the Hawks in my hometown in late 1962, and I have thoughts.

Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks in the Fayetteville High School cafeteria, December 10, 1962. L to R on stage: Ronnie Hawkins, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson

One is that the liveliness of what I’m listening to and writing about has really kept at bay the temptation to dwell on The Band that the Hawks would become. That’s often a hard pull to escape in both general and specific instances. In general, its hard for us to hear or read about the past without dropping our understanding of the present as some kind of unfolding inevitability not just in front of it, but on top of it.

In this specific instance it’s because for a lot of people, especially those not from Fayetteville or Arkansas, Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks are a footnote in the histories of Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. Hearing those guys, and Jerry Penfound, as singers and players in the moment, as the best damn band to ever play a high school dance whatever else they might or might not have gone on to be, is really something.

In turn, hearing The Hawks cover Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ray Charles (5 songs!) and Bo Diddley in front of an enrapt audience of mostly white teenagers in late 1962 helps to throw off the weight of received narratives about rock and roll’s decline and the coming arrival of the Beatles in this supposedly fallow period. Although the Hawks were living in Canada, they worked a circuit of honky tonks and bars across the US south and eastern seaboard, playing hard rhythm and blues covers for sweating, thirsty dancers. When “I Want To Hold Your Hand” finally hits in America a year after the Hawks’ FHS performance, it nationalizes these regional scenes, something that’s easy to miss if you focus your history on the top of the charts instead of keeping your ears to the ground.

There’s a chance that the rest of y’all are going to get the chance to hear this performance soon. I’ll keep you posted.


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