By Eric Angevine
The acoustic blues duo Cephas & Wiggins perform all over the country, mixing Delta blues from Mississippi with the local variant known as country blues, or the Piedmont style. They met in Washington, D.C. in 1977, played together in the Big Chief Ellis band, and have released more than a dozen albums since striking out on their own. As befits a national treasure, their most recent release, titled “Richmond Blues” came out on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
I spoke to guitarist John Cephas and harmonica player Phil Wiggins just before they took the stage in Ashland, Va. Governor Tim Kaine was in the audience. He, and his constituents, looked very happy to be there.
BRO: Your recent album, Richmond Blues, follows the historical trail of country blues music throughout the Piedmont region, from Virginia down to Georgia. Does the music sound different in different localities?
John Cephas: It’s basically the same, and what’s so unique about the Piedmont style is the technique. The alternating thumb and finger picking is what’s made it so important, and that hasn’t changed. No matter what the song is, or what the tempo is, that is what’s unique about it.
Casual fans may be more familiar with Delta blues and its electrified cousin from Chicago. Do you feel like you still need to spread the gospel about the Piedmont style?
JC: The Piedmont style actually pre-dates the Delta style. I think that people have gravitated toward the Delta style because it’s much easier—more single-string progressions—where the Piedmont guitar style is a combination of thumb and finger-picking. It’s much more complicated, more melodic, and has a fuller sound.
People get the notion that the blues are all about being sad. There’s a lot more to it, isn’t there?
Phil Wiggins: Oh yeah. There’s a blues for every occasion and every emotion. All blues music is basically music to party to—it’s dance music. You don’t want to dance to something that’s going to drag you down; you want a good beat and something that will make you feel good. The Piedmont blues especially has that quality. It’s very uplifting. It has a real spark to it.
You travel a lot. Have you ever played anywhere unusual?
PW: We have performed on every continent in the world. We love to travel to new and different places. It was a real milestone in my life to be able to travel throughout Africa; also to go to China. All of these are places we’ve been that I never dreamed we’d be able to go to. People want to hear this music, thousands of miles away from where it was created, and that’s what’s carried us all over the world.
The governor of Virginia is here tonight. Does that kind of thing make you nervous?
JC: We’ve played with and for just about anyone. We play our music, we’re proud of it, and we’re not intimidated at all. When we make an appearance, we come to play. He’s just a man who wants to hear some good blues.
PW: For me, the challenge is to look at how good I am, and how good I would like to be. It’s a constant learning and growing process. I do look forward to meeting him, though.
Our nation is in a real financial crunch right now, but there’s a lot of hope with the election of a new president. Is there a blues for that occasion?
PW: (laughs) They’re all for that occasion. It’s going to be a struggle, but we took the first step in the right direction.
By the end of the evening, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins had found the perfect blues for the occasion, launching themselves into one last traditional tune. “I may be down, but I won’t be down no more,” they sang.