Photos and Text by Larry Benicewicz

Storied Piedmont blues guitarist and singer, John Cephas, passed away at his home in Woodford, VA, on March 4, barely a week after he was presented with the Library of Virginia’s 2009 African-American Trailblazers in Virginia History award. His longtime companion, Lynn Volpe, reported that the cause of death was pulmonary fibrosis, a progressively debilitating condition which prompted his withdrawal from music since November of last year. He was 78.

Unlike other types of blues like the bottleneck Mississippi Delta blues (which by the way he could also perform), the stark, brooding Swamp blues of Louisiana, or the Texas “staccato” type, Piedmont blues, born in the foothills of south Virginia and the coastal Carolinas, is a formidable form to master not only because of its complexity but also its diversity. Its execution involves a light, sprightly, fingering of the strings which is at once both rhythmical and melodic, a two pronged technique which carries the tune. Simultaneous to this dual action, is the accompanying walking bass pattern impelled by the thumb, which John Cephas coined the “Williamsburg Lope.” When you allow for the fact that the troubadour must also sing while accomplishing the first two maneuvers, it remains a remarkable achievement of synchronicity. Ironically, though one of the most intricate of blues classifications, the Piedmont kind is also considered one of the most primitive.
Although there is an obvious early 20th Century ragtime component of its repertoire, many scholars concur that its origin can actually be traced to the country dance bands of the colonial era. And, John, himself, quite a blues historian, often pointed out direct relationships between Piedmont blues and the type played by his West African forebears in Senegal and Mali, both destinations on his tours of that continent.

For years, the Mid-Atlantic region was blessed with the three greatest second generation exponents of this archaic blues idiom: John Jackson, Archie Edwards, and John Cephas, who were all acknowledged giants in the acoustic field and who had extensive recording histories giving ample testimony to their respective genii. All were truly legends in their own time. Although John Cephas could play in the traditional manner espoused by both Jackson and Edwards (who predeceased him in, respectively, 2002 and 1998), he set himself apart from the two by his more progressive additions to the play list, creating what frequent producer, Joe Wilson, labeled “urban acoustic blues.” Whereas Jackson and Edwards were basically revivalists, not straying too far from this indigenous species of blues, Cephas (and longtime partner, Phil Wiggins, on harp) were liberal in their assimilation of foreign material and even other methods of playing far removed from these roots. A case in point is their 1992 Flip, Flop, & Fly album on Flying Fish, which I had the privilege of witnessing at its taping at Bias studio in Springfield, VA.  Besides the Joe Turner R&B title track, the CD contains a Merle Haggard C&W classic, a 20s operetta standard by Romberg and Hammerstein, a Delta slide number, a soulful spiritual, and a torch song with a sympathetic jazz guitar obbligato. As a matter of fact, unlike Jackson and Edwards, not only were Cephas & Wiggins more likely to cross the electric threshold but also toy with all possible configurations of supporting musicians from small combos to New Orleans style brass bands.

L - R: Larry Wise, Eleanor Ellis, Archie Edwards, Flora Molton, John Cephas, Quentin Holloway, John Jackson, Cora Jackson, Phil Wiggins (standing)

L - R: John Dee Holeman and James Jackson (kneeling), 1985

When defending this eclecticism (which seemed like blasphemy to some purists), John Cephas often answered his critics by citing his own philosophy as a musician. “Yes, I could play that old timey music all day long; but an artist has to broaden his horizons. Piedmont blues, like anything else, has to evolve, has to become more modern,” he was wont to say. Also unlike his two illustrious contemporaries, John’ s predilection for experimentation may have been congenital—deeply entrenched and directly attributable to both his innate inquisitiveness and to his exposure to the various cosmopolitan influences of Washington, D.C., experiences somewhat denied to or limited in the former two players. This is not to imply that Jackson and Edwards in their youth were wholly bereft of access to the more urban, sophisticated music. On the contrary, the rural region of their births wasn’t as insulated from popular music as you might suspect. But John Cephas, continually straddling the two musical environments, especially during his formative years, was probably more predisposed to borrow from both. Perhaps it was why he was more amenable or receptive to the novel suggestions of his accompanist, Phil, a full generation younger.

John Cephas was born on September 4, 1930 in Washington, D.C., in the then-segregated subdivision of tenement houses known as Foggy Bottom (now the site of Watergate) which is in the vicinity of 21st and E Streets, NW. His family hailed from Bowling Green, VA, in Caroline County. And the story of his life had been a commuter romance between these two communities.

John Cephas’ considerable musical heritage sprang from a variety of sources. First, his mother, Sylvia, was deeply religious and active in the church choir and some of his earliest memories were of spirituals pervading the household. Encouraged by her, he and his brother sang sacred hymns in a gospel group. Nonetheless, all the while, he kept an open mind about accepting secular music.

About age nine, he fell under the spell of his aunt Lillian and her boyfriend, Haley Dorsey. These two were fairly polished guitar players who favored the blues styles of Lil Green, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. Dorsey, himself, could also do a passable interpretation of pop ballads and torch songs of the day. Being thus acquainted with another world of music, John began surreptitiously practicing chord progressions on his father’s guitar, an activity for which he received many a beating. In fact, his father, Ernest, in a fit of frustration, finally relented and relinquished ownership of the instrument.

If there were these two figures on the home front that were crucial to his musical development, they were balanced by two others who held sway in the country (where he was reared in the summers), his grandfather, John Dudley, and cousin, David Talliaferro. Dudley wasn’t the role model his strict parents envisioned, being a hard drinker and womanizer, but he soon became an inspiration to his young grandson. Seduced by his warmth, charm, and “joie de vivre,” John was not only intrigued about his aptitude as a singer, pianist, and guitarist but also where he’d perform the “devil’s music.” He seemed to know all the road houses, juke joints, and general dens of iniquity in the territory.

Although his grandfather showed John a few pointers on the guitar, it was actually an older cousin, David Talliaferro, who gave him an intensive training course in the rudiments of the Piedmont style—which involved a three-fingered approach and thumb bass lines. Even then a recognized virtuoso of his craft, David was also a patient teacher and John, after much solitary “wood shedding” (and listening to 78 rpm records of bluesmen like Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Reverend Gary Davis, and Blind Lemon Jefferson), finally mastered this difficult coordination of movements. It wasn’t long thereafter that this duo became all the rage, honoring engagements, particularly house parties, all over Caroline County.

For John Cephas, life at home in the late 40s was more of a normal experience that adolescents of that era underwent. He completed all his schooling in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Cardoza High in 1948. In his late teens, he and neighborhood chums would hang out on street corners and sing four part harmonies, mimicking pop or do whop groups of the day like the Ink Spots, Mills Brothers, and Orioles. At the time, the nearby Springfield Baptist Church where John worshipped regularly presented superstar gospel ensembles like the Dixie Hummingbirds, Brooklyn All Stars, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Many came in caravans providing several acts on the program; yet it would be a local outfit which performed there that would be a factor in furthering John’s musical education. Cliff Tyler, the leader of the Capitol Harmonizers and a local, needed a bass voice and knew about John’s reputation as a singer who could span several octaves and even deliver, when the occasion demanded, a pitch perfect falsetto. Accepting the invitation, John soon blended well with group. Although while on tour he was able to meet all the other famous gospel groups of that time frame and personages like Professor Alex Bradford and also appear in all of the renowned arenas of the “Chitlin’Circuit,” including the Apollo in New York and Regal in Chicago, he soon soured on the extensive travel. But this was to become a moot point as the Korean War would soon interfere with any career aspirations.

In 1951 as the Asian conflict was escalating, John was drafted. After basic training in California, he saw action there with the Third Infantry Division. Looking back on his military service, he always considered himself “lucky” to have survived several brushes with enemy artillery. When his two-year hitch expired, he was all too happy to return to Washington, D.C.

As with most veterans of that period, he soon found that solid employment opportunities were scarce and he drifted from one job without a future to another. In the late 50s, he even tried his hand as a first mate on a fishing vessel stationed in Lewes, DE. There he found a cozy little honky-tonk wherein he would often entertain while off duty. But as the years wore on, it became increasingly evident to those around him that his drinking rather than his playing was becoming an all consuming passion.

For John Cephas, the 60s, at least professionally, was a lost decade. The first half was squandered by alcoholism, until finally his mother rescued him by dispatching him to rehabilitation clinics at St. Elizabeth’s and the Washington Hospital Center. Thereafter, feeling deeply disappointed by his lack of notoriety and paucity of profits he received from playing, coupled with his belief that performing at house parties was the cause of his problems with the bottle, he put his guitar on the shelf for the latter five years or so. Acquiring a respectable position as a master carpenter in the armory of the Army National Guard, he looked forward to doing something constructive with his life, which to that point, he felt he had wasted.

But a fortuitous event was soon to change his perspective. Approximately 1970 at a birthday party, a visiting bluesman (who hailed from Birmingham, AL), a self-taught barrelhouse pianist, Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis, encountered John and was immediately apprised by the guests about his prodigious abilities with the guitar. His interest piqued, “Big Chief” prevailed upon the very reluctant John to fetch his instrument. Amazed at what he heard, this veteran of the folk and blues circuit became determined to coax John out of his self-imposed, premature retirement. And using all his powers of persuasion, he finally convinced John that indeed money could be made in a now healthy blues market.

The more “Big Chief” and John played together, the more they coalesced, a foreshadowing of John’s fruitful collaboration with Phil. And the public response was both immediate and enthusiastic, resulting in an escalating number of gigs. This hot duet, now known as the Barrelhouse Rockers, also attracted the attention a few producers; so much so, that by the mid-70s the two would record three separate album ventures. First, there was an LP for Pete Lowry’s Trix label, Big Chief Ellis, as well as a single release, “Fallin’ Rain.” Next came an album for the Library of Congress under the direction of Dick Spottswood. Finally, there was another project for the Blue Ridge Institute recorded at Ferrum College (in southwestern Virginia) under the auspices of Kip Lornell. When 1976 rolled around this dynamic duo was quickly becoming a household name in blues circles, a circumstance which secured their inclusion on the slate of entertainers at the American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and for John, particularly, it was a rendezvous with destiny.

After graduating from high school in 1973, the gifted native harmonica player, Phil Wiggins, regularly traveled in tandem with folk blues guitarist Flora Molton (a fixture in D.C. at the corner of 11th and F St, NW, beside the display window of Woodward & Lothrop until her death in 1990) and by 1976 the two’s reputation was such that they had already had accepted a few invitations to the annual celebration on the Mall.

Bill Heard, who then owned and operated the now-defunct blues bar, Childe Harold, on Connecticut Ave., had a policy of hiring a scheduled Folklife headliner to play at his club that same night. On one such evening, the appointed act was the duo of John Cephas and Chief Ellis. Johnny Shines, the late talented slide player from Chicago, introduced Phil to them and the pair offered him a seat onstage. And thus the seed was planted for Phil to come aboard the Barrelhouse Rockers, forming a trio (or quartet with the addition of bassist, James Bellamy). But it was to be a short lived affair as Big Chief died at 63 in December of 1977. Thereafter, the two remaining musicians figured that they could continue as a duet in the same mold as another renowned Piedmont twosome of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

But Phil still had a lot on his plate in the late 70s and couldn’t quite devote all his attention as yet to his new experiment with John Cephas. When not attending college in New Jersey or in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, he was playing off and on in a trio with both the aforementioned Archie Edwards and another local, colorful character and octogenarian, the late Esther Mae “Mother” Scott. And in addition to the Barrelhouse Rockers, he was still accompanying Flora Molton, a timely association which ultimately led to Cephas & Wiggins’ first in a long string of albums.

According to Edwards, Flora with a small combo (which excluded Phil) had gone to New Orleans in a rather brazen attempt to wrangle a spot on the 1978 JazzFest. She did not accomplish her original agenda but luckily ran into Axel Kustner, respected photographer, advance man, and scout for Horst Lippmann. Lippmann (1927-1997) was a West German jazz musician, writer, television director, and concert impresario (along with Fritz Rau), promoting his particular brainchild, the influential American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe (first established in the early 60s). Lippmann’s major claim to fame to that point was somehow clandestinely recording Hubert Sumlin in East Berlin at the height of Cold War tensions in 1964 and releasing the material on his and Rau’s joint enterprise, the label, L+R. Always trusting Kustner’s judgement, Lippmann commissioned him and engineer Siegfried Christmann to record Flora in a stateside séance in 1980 which yielded Living Country Blues USA Vol. 3: Flora Molton & the Truth Band (which then included Phil) and issued in 1981. When Kustner inquired about other worthy candidates for the L+R label, Molton didn’t hesitate in volunteering the names of both Archie Edwards and John Cephas. Shortly thereafter, Kustner and Christmann journeyed to John Cephas’ home in Caroline County to record Living Country Blues USA, Vol. I: Bowling Green John Cephas & Harmonica Phil Wiggins, a long out of print item which in 1998 was picked up by Evidence records and renamed Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad.

So impressed was he with the hitherto obscure duo, Lippman invited Cephas & Wiggins to Germany for first a date as part of his American Folk Blues Festival and then a subsequent tour consisting of thirty gigs in Austria, Switzerland, France, and England. Their concerts at Kamen and then Siegen, Germany, along with Sunnyland Slim, Louisiana Red, Hubert Sumlin, and Carey Bell were also recorded and issued on a vinyl L+R disk, American Folk Blues Festival ’81 which is now CD LR 2022. The next year, they, in the company of James “Son” Thomas, Archie Edwards, and Carey Bell, reprised their triumphant appearance, this time in Siegen and Frankfurt-am-Main. And it too was captured on L+R as the American Folk Music Festival ’82. This latter engagement now appears on a 2002 Bellaphon records release (CDLR 726024).

In their four year association with Lippmann, Cephas & Wiggins also contributed tracks to at least three other L+R compilations, many of which can now be found on an outstanding 1999 three disk release on Evidence records (ECD 26105-2), Living Country Blues—An Anthology. Finally in 1983, Lippmann saw fit to issue Sweet Bitter Blues, a “best of” the duet, including live and field recordings. Since 1994, it too has been distributed through Evidence records (ECD 26050).

This whirlwind of concert dates overseas in the early 80s was particularly significant to Phil Wiggins in that the full slate of performances not only allowed him to grow as a professional but also solidified his attachment to John; so much so, that after his return from his first excursion abroad, he set about to disband yet another project in which he was involved, the Fabulous Touchstones, an R&B outfit featuring drummer Eric Sheridan, later of the Uptown Rhythm Kings. “Let’s say I finally cleared the decks and resolutely cast my lot with John after that first swing through Europe,” said Phil in a 1991 interview.

Ironically, though hailed as demigods overseas in the early 80s, they struggled mightily for recognition at home. It seemed that the acoustic blues they doggedly embraced invariably took a back seat in popularity in any competition with a slick and electric genre, say of its cousin, the Chicago variety. Never receiving top billing, they would often be an opener or a last minute substitution or addition. But the key element in the future success of the two was that they both accepted virtually any opportunity to play at home or anywhere in the world and this perseverance eventually paid off, whether (according to Phil) dodging a hail of bullets in Honduras or escaping harrowing police harassment in Columbia--many of the venues for these two “ambassadors of goodwill” in such far flung outposts arranged and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In one year alone in 1984, they set foot in thirty-two different nations. During the decade of the 80s, they also paid calls in Africa, China, Australia, and New Zealand and were among the first Americans to perform in Moscow during the 1988 Russian Folk Festival.

And moreover, Cephas & Wiggins were just as energetic in the studio, activities which would earn them unexpected honors by mid-decade. In 1986, they won two Handy Awards from the Blues Foundation. The first was bestowed in acknowledgement of the Best Traditional Album of the Year. The record in question, Dog Days of August on Flying Fish, actually had a modest inception as a 1985 field recording engineered at John’s abode in Woodford, VA, by the aforementioned confidant and producer, Joe Wilson (then head of The National Council of Traditional Arts), and Larry McBride of Marimac Records. Since all the L+R disks were hard to find imports, this undertaking was intended to be nothing more than a promotional vehicle or calling card. Nonetheless, the technical quality as well as the artistry of the resulting cassette, Let It Roll: Bolling Green, caught the ear of Bruce Kaplan, who repackaged and renamed it for his Chicago-based concern. And most certainly the icing on the cake that same year was another unforeseen trophy at the same ceremony in Memphis—Entertainers of the Year. And two years later their next endeavor for Flying Fish, Guitar Man, with Chris Round on drums was nominated for a second blues Oscar at the annual event held in the “Home of the Blues.” Closing out the decade, Cephas and Wiggins completed Walking Blues for Marimac, a label that jump started the careers of other area acoustic guitar wizards like Bruce Hutton and Eleanor Ellis.

The latter artist, well aware of the rich legacy of Piedmont blues in the Mid-Atlantic region, was determined to capture this uniquely American genre of music for posterity in the form of a documentary. And in 1985 she seized an opportune moment when all of her prime subjects—Larry Wise, Archie Edwards, Flora Molton, John Dee Holeman, and Cephas and Wiggins---were gathered together during an old-fashioned country cookout and hoe-down at the rural retreat of John Jackson in Fairfax County, VA. This labor of love, Blues House Party, was four years in the making and in 1989 Eleanor Ellis presented this moving tribute before the Folklore Society of Greater Washington at the Washington Ethical Society.

John Cephas, himself, no less of a blues preservationist, was concerned that a lot of musical traditions would be lost over the years unless an organization could provide a regular venue or outlet where artists could congregate and share ideas. So in 1987, Cephas along with Ellis and University of Maryland musicologist, Dr. Barry Pearson, founded the DC Blues Society. In fact, John Cephas became its first president and Phil the second. And three years later, Pearson would publish an extensive biography (and scholarly treatise of the music) of his personal hero, John, in his Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives and Art of Two Virginia Bluesmen. In recognition of both John’s efforts in perpetuating the blues through not only his playing but also his conservation efforts (he also served as an executive member of the National Council of Traditional Arts), he received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989.

After the untimely deaths of principals Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish records in 1992 (also the date of their last release for that trademark, Flip, Flop, & Fly) and Larry McBride of Marimac in 1993, Cephas & Wiggins were temporarily without a recording contract. But the hiatus from studio did not endure for long as they were wooed by what is billed as “the world’s premiere audiophile” label, Chesky, a mostly jazz concern (Phil Woods, Kenny Rankin, Joe Henderson, Clark Terry) founded in 1978 in New York by the Chesky brothers, David and Norman, who presided over their 1993 undertaking, Bluesmen (JD 089), which is still in print.

But undoubtedly their greatest success came with their decade-long association with Bruce Iglauer’s Alligator records. Invariably produced by Joe Wilson, Cephas & Wiggins released no less than four albums for this legendary Chicago-based enterprise, beginning with Cool Down, taped at Hot Spot in Hyattsville, MD, in 1996 and long considered among critics as their magnum opus. But only less definitive were their subsequent endeavors for Alligator---Homemade in 1998 recorded at Private Ear in Hyattsville; Somebody Told the Truth completed in 2002 at Burnt Hill Studio in Clarksville, MD; and Shoulder to Shoulder executed in 2006 at Slipped Disc in Ashland,VA, the latter  featuring noted area pianists, Daryl Davis and Ann Rabson of Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women.

As the new millennium dawned (in which now they were on the roster of the prestigious Charlotte, NC, booking agency, Piedmont Talent), other remarkable achievements were the releases From Richmond to Atlanta on Bullseye in 2000, which included Flying Fish material acquired by Rounder after the death of Kaplan and their last appearance on CD, Richmond Blues, a 2008 affair as part of the Smithsonian Folkways African American Legacy series. This time overseen by the aforementioned Dr. Barry Lee Pearson and again recorded at Slipped Disc studio, Richmond Blues, on Smithsonian Folkways (SFW 40179) serves as a final fitting homage to Cephas and could possibly be the most traditionally minded of all their albums. Containing a thirty-two page booklet and over sixty-five minutes of music, this handsome package encapsulates the essence of Cephas & Wiggins with a sixteen track selection (some of which can be sampled on YouTube) of their interpretations of many of the classics of Piedmont blues, including “Black Rat Swing,” “Prison Bound Blues,” “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad,” and “Step It Up & Go.”

After his passing and out of the deepest admiration for John Cephas, the DC Blues Society arranged a service for their founder and longtime mentor on Sunday, March 29, from 1-3 p.m. in the Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on the Mall at 10th and Constitution Ave., NW, in Washington, DC. Highlights of the program included touching musical accolades by friends and associates, among them Alligator label mate Corey Harris, Eleanor Ellis, Daryl Davis, and partner Phil Wiggins, while speakers Joe Wilson, Barry Pearson, and Bill Wax shared intensely personal anecdotes. And this outpouring of affection in the form of a sustained musical jam continued on later that day at a reception at the Westminster Presbyterian Church at 400 I St, SW, the site of regularly scheduled blues presentations on Monday nights and jazz on Fridays.

I attended John Jackson’s viewing in Manassas,VA, in 2002 and I was waiting patiently to pay my last respects while nearly last in a queue which snaked from the door of the funeral parlor out to the street and it just so happened that John Cephas was directly behind me. He recognized me from our many meetings and we talked about the future of his beloved Piedmont music and how now he was sadly the last surviving local representative. In short, he acknowledged and appreciated that many white artists, skilled guitarists and singers, were picking up the torch but bemoaned the fact that few were coming from the black community. And I had to agree with him. “But,” he added, “In case they ever want to learn the real thing, I’m going to make sure to leave something behind that they can sink their teeth into. ‘Cause blues is what it’s all about. Blues is life.” And thankfully for us, John Cephas was always a man of his word.

------ Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society

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