The Blues Lady’s Vision
All photos by Andre Gagne. Note: All train photographs were taken on a track that is no longer in use. OLM does not endorse approaching any railroad.
She opens her eyes. “Failure…failure…” The two-syllable echo has woken her once again to face the dim light of another uncertain dawn. The voice follows her to the mirror, inescapable as she studies the changes to her face, what should be familiar now foreign. Will I still be able to see that reflection in a year, she wonders? The face looking back at her wears the hardships of a life that has endured abuse, pain, poverty and loss; that woman in the mirror with so much vision now fighting to hold onto her own sight. Still, she smiles and starts to sing. She has to keep singing. It’s the music that pushes her forward into another day in the life of Maria Hawkins, Ottawa’s Blues Lady.
The eldest of six, she was born on July 13, 1957 into a musical household. Her Maritime mother played piano, often accompanied by Maria’s grandfather on the fiddle as the young girl watched. She was always singing. Sometimes she’d put on Chubby Checker records and do the Twist with her siblings, bellowing out rock and roll, not necessarily the singing nun her mother envisioned her to one day be. At the age of six, she was quickly enrolled into vocal lessons with the Royal Conservatory of Music under the tutelage of Francis Davies.
“Mrs. Davies knew how to work with a child who had the attention span of a gnat,” recalls Hawkins with a bit of a laugh.
Through Davies, Maria learned that music was something you didn’t just hear; it was all around her. She could feel it, touch it, and smell it. She performed her first show at the age of seven singing “Over the Rainbow” to a crowd of nearly 1,000.
“She has been into music all her life,” recalls sister Niki, who sometimes found Maria singing out her window into the cold night air like she was performing a private concert for the universe.
But, like many times in Maria’s life, things didn’t stay wonderful very long. Her mother’s choice for a lover taught her lessons far removed from the classroom of Mrs. Davies. From him she learned how to avoid a punch and how to run. Pregnant at 16 and fearing that her stepfather would turn his angry gaze upon her child, she left home and moved from one bad relationship into another. One was a stalker; another became a convicted murder. Playing music helped her escape from a world of hateful words, violence and struggles raising her children.
“I've been assaulted, threatened, verbally abused, and felt my life in danger a few times as a result of my career choice,” she says.
Defiant to not let go of her dreams, Hawkins started performing at a local soup kitchen when she was 18. Helping those in need through music was something she continued throughout her life. However, it was wandering into a blues jam session one night that altered her path in music forever. Blues harmonica player, Larry “the Bird” Mootham was on stage and, inspired by him, Maria started hitting up every jam in town eventually forming her own band. The Downstairs Club, the Rainbow and Irene’s, if there was somewhere to sing the blues, Hawkins was there.
“She’s both positive and fearless in performance,” says Vince Halfhide, former guitarist in Mootham’s band. “At a jam she’ll get up and sing with anyone and even if there’s not a lot of common ground she’ll make something happen out of nothing. “
Ottawa’s blues music scene became synonymous with the name Maria Hawkins. She went on to be an opening act for Colin James, played with Jack de Keyzer and Bernard Allison, and once had Amanda Marshall singing backup for her. She received the NAC Award for Artistic Excellence and was prominently featured on CBC television.
“She owns the stage once she starts singing,” says Peter Beaudoin, one-time drummer in the Maria Hawkins Band.
As she made a name for herself in music, Hawkins continued to pursue ways to share her abilities to benefit others. She’s worked with 54 local charities over the years, most focusing on children, while developing her own programs like the Tooth Fairy Project that provided dental care for musicians, and Blues4Kids, an initiative that brought her into the fold of Bluesfest where she helped found the Blues in the Schools program. At her peak she worked 40 schools a year. One of her young students, before tragically succumbing to cancer, gave Maria the name Blues Lady. It stuck.
“She is a strong, talented, loving and respectable woman. To me she is love,” says Elaina Martin, founder of Westfest, on Maria’s giving nature.
Hawkins realized key government support was being withdrawn from so many areas and watching people suffer because of it just gnawed at her. She sat on a few advisory committees to ensure the musician’s voice was heard. Her efforts won her the W.C. Handy Award, the highest accolade musicians can be given in blues music as well as the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for 25 years of service to Canadian Youth. However, many times Hawkins foot the funding bills for her charity projects out of her own pocket; a practice that found her deeply in debt.
“You see, the only person I could give for free was me. The rest of my band got paid whether I did or not,” she explains. “I found it very difficult to be selective about who I helped as I watched the state of support for charities dwindle over the years.”
Nearly destitute, in 2008 she filed for bankruptcy and left her home. Hawkins dumped as much as she could into a couple of suitcases and moved into the YMCA. She still continued to write music and perform though she started to question her choices.
How could I be so wrong in what I'm doing when it seems like it's what I should be doing, she thought to herself.
“I was so depressed after that. I had no money, no place to live, and now the only thing that brought meaning and joy to my life was being ripped away. Music is my life's work; sharing it and using it to inspire others to seek the best of life for themselves,” she says, recalling nearly giving up hope when in her lowest moment she was knocked lower by somebody she thought would help.
“I was told by a social worker: Maria you’re a failure as a musician. You'll have to find another source of income.”
The words taunted her, almost causing her to give up what she cherished. To add further insult, Hawkins was once caught photocopying music charts at her welfare office. Despite the fact that the office allowed clients to do this, she was told that music wasn’t a viable career choice relevant to the service. A bout with illness followed and, last year, she was told she had Fuchs Endothelial Dystrophy, a hereditary condition that greatly affects her vision. She required surgery or risk blindness. The first altered the shape of her facial features. A winter spill on the ice that caused her to bounce her head off the hood of her car didn’t help matters either. As she lay there bleeding in the snow, pieces of her glasses embedded into her face, it finally dawned on the woman who had helped so many that she now needed help herself.
In order to raise some money to make ends meet as she undergoes two partial cornea transplants, Hawkins did what she does best: she organized a concert. Local support from the music community poured in.
“She has a voice and a personality larger than life,” says musician Pat Moore. “Maria is someone that is able to gather others to her if she is putting on a show, a benefit or is looking to help with a group in need.”
The singer would put up an online fundraising campaign and is trying to get in touch with representatives of the The Ellen DeGeneres Show to tell her story. Despite her hardships she remains hopeful, plans to finally record an album and says she’s not going to stop helping people.
"It is the stability and sensitivity of your support system, the capacity of your will to strive towards your desires, the endurance to overcome the pain and frustration of your limitations and the stimulation of inclusion into the greater community that enables personal growth. These are the things that truly matter."
There’s also the music, those beautiful blues to sing in the face of adversity. Even if her vision is going she still has her voice. It’s something she reminds herself each night before she closes her eyes.
Note: All train photographs were taken on a track that is no longer in use. OLM does not endorse approaching any railroad.