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July 23, 2014 by Brian Whepley

Editor’s note: A version of this article will appear in the Summer issue of The Journal, which focuses on the issue of childhood poverty in Kansas. The edition will be published in August. 

Taped, torn, thumbed and now appallingly grungy, my copy of the blue-covered 1983 edition of “The New Rolling Stone Record Guide” revealed all kinds of vinyl treasures.

Loving music but unable to play anything but the stereo, I danced into Rolling Stone and any other publication covering rock, punk, blues, soul and whatever else caught my ear. When a five-star review of the album “Watch Your Step” described Ted Hawkins as a cross between soul singer Sam Cooke and gentle bluesman Mississippi John Hurt and declared “soul and blues fans need to hear this,” I had a mission: buy it.

I don’t remember where I picked up “Watch Your Step,” but I’ll never forget the impact. The songs, recorded in 1971 but unreleased for years, were joyful, aching, sad, even hilarious. Some combined all those feelings, but the ones that hit hardest seemed drawn from nowhere but personal experience: “Put in a Cross,” “Sorry You’re Sick,” “I Gave Up All I Had” and “Peace & Happiness.”

None hit harder than “The Lost Ones.” In two minutes and 50 seconds of desolate examples, Hawkins tells of crushing poverty and its toll on the children who have no control over their circumstances. The song leaves no doubt Hawkins had seen if not experienced every bit of the devastation he describes. He was reporting from the front lines and embedded in emotion.

There’s the tragic reality:

Mama is dying and daddy is gone.

I’d call the doctor but there’s no telephone.

There’s hunger:

Icebox is empty and the food is all gone.

This wouldn’t be happening if my daddy was home.

There’s isolation:

I’d call the neighbors but I don’t even know their name.

They’ve lived there 10 years, oh ain’t that a shame.

There’s no hope:

We’ve all tried praying but I don’t know how to pray.                                                       

And there’s the chorus’ sad recognition of being written off:

We are the lost ones, living all alone. 

“The Lost Ones” struck a chord with me, I think, because it struck so many chords. It’s easy to blame the poor for being poor and then dismiss them. But one devastating point after another in Hawkins’ lyrics rips that simplistic argument to shreds, just by reciting the facts. What on earth have these poor kids done to deserve their circumstances? Absolutely nothing, from what I hear. 

I’m always looking to hear something new – often something old, actually – when it comes to music. It can be loud, proud, slow, fast, sad, mad or glad, but it must move me. When music connects on a deep level like Hawkins’ does, it’s special. I don’t know if his music changed my life, but it sure made mine richer and possibly a bit more thoughtful.

On “The Lost Ones,” Hawkins’ voice takes his striking words and paints pictures in my mind and heart that I just cannot dismiss, making a case that the cold, hard facts of printed words alone cannot. Accompanied by his basic guitar – he scratched out a living singing on L.A.’s Venice Beach – his singing cuts to my soul. He has made others’ songs his own – Webb Pierce’s “There Stands a Glass,” Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me,” John Fogerty’s “Long as I Can See the Light” – but Hawkins’ own words hit hardest.

They are about not having things – love, parents, medicine, money, a drink, the ability to make good choices – but his voice – husky, deep, bouncing, piercing – fills and washes over those voids. It’s a voice that led me to buy copies of “Watch Your Step” from cutout bins and force them upon friends – “You have to hear this. You have to feel this.”

Hawkins knew what he sang. He stole, used drugs, went to reform school and prison, and drifted across the country before settling in L.A. in the 1960s. Repeatedly “discovered” but never finding lasting success, he died of a diabetic stroke on Jan. 1, 1995, eight months after his only major label release.

Hawkins was forever shaped by childhood. Born poor in mid-1930s Mississippi, he never knew his father, and his mother was an alcoholic and a prostitute. “I’d come home and want to be cuddled, but my mother would never cuddle me,” he said in 1993.  “She never could love me, and because I never got love, I can never give love. … The only way I can share any love is by singing.”

Share he did.