Listen: Extended audio of Cephas & Wiggins performance chat in NPR's studio 4A, hosted by Scott Simon
James R. Alexander, Johnstown FolkFest
Phil Wiggins (left) and John Cephas perform at the 1999 Johnstown FolkFest, Johnstown, Pa.
Cephas & Wiggins' new CD, Somebody Told the Truth (Alligator Records,2002).
Katie Parker, NPR.
The Piedmont region extends east from the Piedmont Mountains (green shaded area) to the Atlantic Ocean.
For the past 25 years guitarist John Cephas and harmonica player Phil Wiggins have performed the blues to audiences throughout the world. The Washington, D.C., duo's music is in the tradition of the "Piedmont blues." It's a style formed during the early part of the past century in the southeast region of the United States. Cephas and Wiggins join NPR's Scott Simon to talk about their music and play their brand of the blues.
The Piedmont blues is a brand different from any other, including the better-known Delta blues, the two musicians tell Simon. Cephas demonstrates the distinctive technique that he says characterizes the Piedmont style: "an alternating thumb and finger picking." Wiggins characterizes the music as "more similar to ragtime... house party music, dance music."
"This music goes way back," Wiggins says. "It comes from hard times, difficult times when people didn't get much reward for their hard work, and there was a real necessity for people to rejuvenate themselves, to do things that were good for the human spirit to make it through the hard times. This music has its roots in those times... It has that power in it to rejuvenate you, to lift you up, to nourish your spirit."
John Cephas was born in 1930 in Washington, D.C., and raised in a small town near Bowling Green, Va. His first exposure to music was to gospel, which he has sung professionally. Cephas learned to play in the Piedmont blues style by listening to the records of early musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake and the Rev. Gary Davis.
Phil Wiggins was born in Washington, D.C., in 1954. He traces his musical influences to Sonny Terry, Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells. Wiggins played with a number of Washington-area blues luminaries before joining Cephas in 1977. The two met while playing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
The duo has performed the Piedmont blues throughout the world; in 1988 they were among the first Americans to perform at the Russian Folk Festival in Moscow. Their 1987 album Dog Days of August won the W.C. Handy Award for the Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year.