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