John Cephas & Phil Wiggins played country blues, keeping the Piedmont tradition alive. The duo celebrated the gentle, melodic blues style of the Southeastern United States.
Because both Cephas and Wiggins were born in Washington, D.C., they brought an urban sophistication to the traditionally rural blues they performed. The duo quickly became popular with traditional blues fans in the United States and in Europe, where they recorded two albums, Living Country Blues and Sweet Bitter Blues, for the German L&R label.
Often under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, the two spent much of the 1980s abroad, playing Europe, Africa, Central and South America, China, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1988, they were among the first Americans to perform at the Russian Folk Festival in Moscow.
By the end of the 1980s, the international blues community began to recognize Cephas & Wiggins as the leading exponents of traditional Tidewater blues. The two recorded their first domestic album, Dog Days of August, in 1987 in John’s living room, and it quickly won a W.C. Handy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year. In 1989, John received a National Heritage Fellowship Award. Often called the Living Treasure Award, this is the highest honor the United States government offers a traditional artist.
Aside from their busy performance schedule, both Cephas and Wiggins also worked as actors. In 1991 John portrayed a blind bluesman in the Kennedy Center production of Blind Man Blues. Phil was in the cast of Matewon, a prize-winning Hollywood film. Together they appeared in the stage production of Chewing The Blues and in the documentary films Blues Country and Houseparty.
Cephas & Wiggins were also inckuded in four touring arts programs in the United States, sponsored by the National Council For The Traditional Arts: Masters of the Steel String Guitar, Juke Joints and Jubilee, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Echoes of Africa.
In 1996, after two successful albums for the Flying Fish label, Cephas & Wiggins made their Alligator debut with Cool Down. It was a collection of original and traditional country blues. The success of Cool Down helped establish Cephas & Wiggins as essential musicians in the resurgence of interest in country blues, as seen in the success of young acoustic artists like Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, Chris Thomas King and others.
John Cephas died March 4 of 2009 of natural causes. He was 78.
Living Country Blues USA Vol. 1 (L+R, 1981)
Sweet Bitter Blues (L+R, 1984 reissued by Evidence Records in 1994)
Let It Roll: Bowling Green (Marimac, 1985 )
Dog Days of August (Flying Fish, 1986)
Guitar Man (Flying Fish, 1987)
Walking Blues (Marimac, 1988)
Flip, Flop & Fly (Flying Fish, 1992)
Bluesmen (Chesky, 1993)
Cool Down (Alligator, 1996)
Homemade (Alligator, 1999)
Somebody Told the Truth (Alligator, 2002 )
Shoulder to Shoulder (Alligator, 2006)
Richmond Blues (Smithsonian Folkways, 2008)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.