Master blues guitarist and vocalist John Cephas died of natural causes on Wednesday, March 4, 2009. He was 78. Well known as one half of the award-winning Piedmont blues duo Cephas & Wiggins, John’s remarkable and delicate finger picking and rich, baritone vocals placed him firmly at the forefront of acoustic blues artists. John received a National Heritage Fellowship Award (often called the “Living Treasure Award”) in 1989. This is the highest honor the U.S. G overnment offers a traditional artist. Two weeks ago, John was honored as one of eight black trailblazers as designated by the Library of Virginia's African American History Month.
John Cephas, along with his harmonica playing partner Phil Wiggins, performed thousands of concerts and festivals all over the world. 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. In 1997 Cephas & Wiggins performed for President Bill Clinton. In addition, John appeared on stage portraying a blind bluesman in the Kennedy Center production of Blind Man Blues. He also appeared in a production of Zora Neal Hurston’s play, Polk County, in Washington, D.C.
Among his many endeavors, John s erved on the Executive Committee of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and has testified before Congressional committees. He is also a founder of the Washington, D.C. Blues Society. “More than anything else,” said John, “I would like to see a revival of country blues by more young people…more people going to concerts, learning to play the music. That’s why I stay in the field of traditional music. I don’t want it to die.”
John Cephas was born in Washington, D.C. in 1930 into a deeply religious family and raised in Bowling Green, Virginia. His first taste of music was gospel, but blues soon became his calling. After learning to play the alternating thumb and fingerpicking guitar style that defines Piedmont blues, John began emulating the records he heard by Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis and other early blues artists. Aside from playing blues, John worked early on as a prof essional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman. By the 1960s, he was starting to make a living from his music.
John first met his future partner Phil Wiggins in 1976 at the Smithsonian National Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. and the two quickly formed a duo. By the early 1980s, the international blues community recognized this marvelous acoustic twosome as the leading exponents of traditional Tidewater blues. While overseas in 1981, they recorded two albums, Living Country Blues and Sweet Bitter Blues, for the German L&R label. Cephas & Wiggins recorded their first domestic album, Dog Days Of August (Flying Fish Records), in 1987 in John’s living room, and it quickly won a Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year.
In 1996, Cephas & Wiggins made their Alligator Records debut with Cool Down. They followed up with Homemade, Someb ody Told The Truth and Shoulder To Shoulder. Their most recent CD, 2009’s Richmond Blues, was released on the Smithsonian Folkways label.