By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Guitarist/vocalist John Cephas and harmonica expert Phil Wiggins, collectively known as Cephas & Wiggins, play what's alternately called Tidewater music or Piedmont blues. And while they're not the only ones to do so, Cephas is frustrated that more young players aren't following in their footsteps.
"You know, I can't really think of anybody new that you would hear on the radio who's doing it," Cephas says. "The numbers are very few. Phil and I, we have a soul-felt interest to teach the music, to present it, to perpetuate it--to play it and demonstrate the techniques and let people know something about its background. But it's very complex, and a lot of the aspiring musicians will choose the easy way out. They'll play Delta style, which is a much easier style to learn."
The differences between the Delta and Piedmont approaches are considerable: The former is desolate and anguished, born of poverty and despair, while the latter is warm-blooded and elegant, a brew of bouncy guitar-picking that combines bass lines and countermelodies with chords and strumming. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee popularized the format in the Forties, but Arthur Phelps, known to the blues world as Blind Blake, is generally credited as Piedmont's founder. Between 1926 and 1936, he recorded over a hundred tunes that developed and expanded upon this blossoming sound. His torch was picked up in 1935 by Blind Boy Fuller, whose 1935-40 sides helped establish the subgenre's signature guitar attack and introduced musical guidelines that have been followed by Piedmont artists ever since.
According to Cephas, Piedmont's cradle was "the East Coast, roughly from Maryland down to the northern part of Georgia, and from the ocean to the Blue Ridge Mountains." But he disagrees with those historians who refer to the music as "East Coast blues." To him, the geography is more specific than that tag implies. "You take the Chesapeake Bay and most of its tributaries--the Potomac, the Rappahannock, the James and the York--and at a certain point, they all become tidewater. And this tidewater area just so happens to be in the Piedmont area, which means 'rolling hill country.' That's where the music started, and most of the musicians who come out of the black community in this area use the Fuller technique--the alternating thumb-and-finger-picking style that I play."
Cephas, who was born in Washington, D.C., either 65 or 67 years ago, depending upon which reference book you believe, began learning this method at age nine. By the time he reached adulthood, he was a Piedmont pro, but rather than dedicate himself exclusively to the blues, he worked as a carpenter in the nation's capital until his 1987 retirement. "I always played music, though," Cephas notes. "As you probably already know, playing music is generally really not enough to make a living off of--at least it hasn't been while I was coming along. So I had a regular job and I still played."
Indeed, Cephas spent many hours during the Sixties and Seventies performing alongside pianist Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis and his Barrelhouse Rockers. Wiggins, a D.C. native who is Cephas's junior by a quarter-century, joined the lineup in 1977, after Cephas and Ellis heard him accompanying gospel singer Flora Molton at the Smithsonian National Folklife Festival. "I tell you, he was so dynamic and original that he kind of stood out from all the rest," Cephas remembers. "I was really impressed."
When Ellis died the following year, Cephas and Wiggins formed their partnership. They subsequently recorded two albums for Germany's L&R label and toured the world under the banner of the U.S. State Department. But their breakthrough took place in 1987 with the release of Dog Days of August. Cut in Cephas's living room, the recording, issued on the Flying Fish imprint, was named Best Traditional Album at the W.C. Handy Awards (the Grammys of the blues field). The pair was given the even more prestigious Blues Entertainers of the Year prize at the same ceremony, and in 1989 Cephas was the winner of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, also known as the Living Treasure Award.
This last prize, which is among the highest honors presented to American folk artists, was something of a validation for Cephas, whose parents discouraged him from taking up his favorite type of music. "My father was a Baptist minister," he says, "and the places that the blues were being played--well, they were considered as being places of ill repute, where folks were drinking and dancing and having fun. Rabble-rousing and the like. It was taboo. Back then, the old folks would tell you that if you were going to play your music, it was better to play church music. But these same old people would celebrate after a hard week's work, having parties themselves. They'd drink a little bit, dance, let their hair down and have a good time. And they were telling me not to do something that they were doing themselves. So it didn't stick very well." He adds, "My parents finally accepted it. But my mother, to her grave, still admonished me to play in the church instead of so much in nightclubs and some of the places I'd been playing."