Corrections or additions?

This article was prepared by Richard Skelly for the May 18, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Returning to the Root of Blues

Guitarist John Cephas and harmonica player Phil Wiggins began

performing together in 1977, but it took them until the mid-1980s to

forgo their day jobs in favor of life on the road as full time blues

men. Today the acoustic blues duo earns a good living from live

performances and is in demand at folk and blues festivals across the

U.S., Canada, and Europe.

The duo, practitioners of acoustic Piedmont style blues, performs with

acoustic blues man Roy Book Binder on Thursday, May 19, at Trenton War

Memorial’s Roots Festival. At these smaller shows, audience members

sit on the stage at the Patriots Theater, alongside the performers,

creating more intimacy than if the audience were relegated to theater


Cephas and Wiggins’ latest release, "Somebody Told the Truth," debuted

in the spring of last year on the Alligator Records label. Alligator,

based in Chicago, is widely regarded as the best blues label to record

for, owing to its dedicated, small staff who see to it that each new

release gets properly marketed, promoted, and distributed.

Cephas, now 74 and a resident of Bowling Green, Virginia, began

playing blues and folk guitar as a teenager, mostly house parties at

first "within the black community," he says. "I met Phil at the 1976

Smithsonian Festival (the free annual festival held on the Mall in

Washington, D.C., the last weekend in June and the first weekend in

July), when we jammed together with Big Chief Ellis. I was playing

with Big Chief, and he was playing with Flora Molton.

"I heard Phil playing this wonderful harmonica, and so we asked him to

come jam with us sometime. I was just floored by his harmonica

playing. Big Chief started a new group called the Barrelhouse Rockers,

and Phil and I were part of that group. We played as a quartet until

Big Chief passed," he says. Ellis died in 1977 and Cephas and Wiggins

have been working as a duo ever since.

Because they play acoustic, unamplified blues, the duo found bookings

at as many folk festivals as they did blues festivals. They also

established a foothold on the college circuit in the mid-1980s.

Aside from "Somebody Told The Truth," their other well-ecorded albums

for Alligator Records include "Homemade" and "Cool Down." Previous to

their affiliation with Alligator, Cephas and Wiggins recorded for

Flying Fish Records, a now-defunct label that was run out of [late]

owner Bruce Kaplan’s Chicago townhouse.

On "Somebody Told The Truth" and their other recordings, Cephas and

Wiggins mix up their own original songs with songs popularized by

classic, acoustic bluesmen, including Cephas’s prime inspirations,

guitarists and singers including Blind Boy Fuller, Pink Anderson, Rev.

Gary Davis, and John Jackson.

"I grew up in both D.C. and in Caroline County, Virginia," Cephas

says, "and this was before the days of television, so in those days,

people in the black community would recreate themselves by having

these house parties after a hard week’s work. While I mostly grew up

in D.C. until after high school, I would travel to our family’s place

on weekends down here in Virginia."

In the last dozen years, since their affiliation with Alligator

Records and a proper booking agency began, Cephas and Wiggins have

taken their Piedmont styled acoustic blues all over the world. "We’ve

been to Australia, all over Africa, all over Scandinavia, all over

Europe and the old Soviet Union, Canada, New Zealand, the U.S. and

we’ve been to Japan and central and South America as well," Cephas


Cephas has six children, all grown now. Wiggins, 54, has two children

from a previous marriage.

The essence of the Piedmont style of acoustic blues, Cephas explains,

is the alternating finger and thumb picking. "You alternate between

the thumb and the finger, and actually, it’s a technique that

originated in Africa. You are sort of playing the bass lines with the

thumb and picking out the melodies with the fingers."

Asked about how they write songs together, Cephas says that he and

Wiggins contribute a lyrical idea or a patch of chorus and verse. They

work on a song together until a suitable melody and arrangement is

worked out, with Wiggins adding complementary harmonica treatments and

solos where needed.

"Phil and I both write our songs from everyday experiences. The basis

of blues is all about telling true to life stories, true to life

experiences," he says. An example from "Somebody Told the Truth" would

be "Backbiter Blues," a song Cephas wrote, perhaps inspired in part by

his many years with the D.C. branch of the National Guard. "It simply

has to do with people who stab you in the back and undermine you,

doing underhanded things, and the effects of people doing things like

that," he says. The recent album also includes an old traditional

song, "Darling Corey," about a woman who owns a whiskey still and a

man who falls in love with her.

Between Cephas’ startlingly clear guitar playing and Wiggins’

super-melodic harmonica player, backed by their strong harmonies, the

pair offers up an acoustic blues sound that is uniquely their own.

Cephas and Wiggins have an immediately recognizable style.

"We’ve both known Roy Book Binder for a long, long time," Cephas says

of the acoustic blues man based in Polk City, Florida, when he is not

traveling up and down the East Coast and around the Midwest in his

Airstream trailer.

Book Binder, a Brooklyn native, spent time in the 1960s folk-blues

revival working with the Rev. Gary Davis and takes his cues from other

Piedmont bluesmen like the late, Carolina-based bluesman Pink

Anderson. Book Binder also has a gift for telling funny stories

between tunes and explaining the history and background of the tunes

he performs.

Cephas is looking forward to performing again at the War Memorial.

"We’ve been to the War Memorial before, and it’s a very nice sounding

room, a beautiful setting. It’s really intimate for the audience,

because they’re sitting on the stage. We’re always open to requests,

so if somebody knows our material and wants to ask for something,

we’ll entertain those ideas."

John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Roy Book Binder, Thursday, May

19, 7 p.m., Patriots Theater, War Memorial, West Lafayette Street,

Trenton. 609-984-8400.

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