Duo offers Piedmont blues

February 06, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

"Blues is poetry," says John Cephas. "There's poetry in the songs."

There's also history in blues songs - the history of America and its music.

Piedmont blues is the part of the blues story John Cephas and Phil Wiggins will perform Saturday night at the Frank Center Theater in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Cephas defines Piedmont blues as the "technique and the region of the United States where this music was born."

The Piedmont is central Virginia south to parts of northern Georgia - from the mountains to the ocean, he says.

The acoustic guitar-picking technique that characterizes Piedmont blues is an alternating thumb and finger-picking style, Cephas says. Delta blues guitar, by contrast, is a single-string progression.

The Piedmont branch of the blues evolved from that rural region and was colored by the influences of East Coast urban areas in the teens and '20s of the last century, says Todd Bolton of Smithsburg, who says he loves music and studies its history.


"The Piedmont Blues is a dying art form," he says. Young people aren't picking it up as much as they do the Delta Blues form.


"One reason," Bolton says, "it's harder."

John Cephas, 72, is "the last of the old-school Piedmont people," he says.

Bolton, a member of the programming committee of Hagers-town's Western Maryland Blues Fest, calls John Cephas "the real thing."

Although he was born in Washington, D.C., he grew up and still has a home in rural Caroline County, Va. He took his nickname "Bowling Green" from the country town about 22 miles south of Fredericksburg, Va., and 35 miles north of Richmond, Va.

Cephas says he cut his teeth on the music he heard as a child. He started playing guitar at age 9, taught by a cousin and later influenced by early Piedmont artists Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake and the Rev. Gary Davis.

He began his music career as a gospel singer and worked as a carpenter and fisherman. He was starting to make a living at his music by the early 1960s, and he was playing with blues piano player "Big Chief" Ellis at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during America's bicentennial celebration, when he met Phil Wiggins.

Wiggins, born in Washington, D.C., in 1954, had played his harmonica with leading blues artists Archie Edwards and John Jackson. He also played with street singer and slide guitarist Flora Molton.

Wiggins joined Ellis, Cephas and bassist James Bellamy to form the Barrelhouse Rockers. Cephas and Wiggins became a duo in 1977.

Together since the late 1970s, the pair is on the road about nine months a year, Cephas says. During the early 1980s, they traveled to 52 different countries - in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, the Soviet Union, China, Scandinavia and throughout Europe.

There was more enthusiasm in some European countries than in America in those days, Cephas says. But domestic audiences have come to appreciate their music more. "It's good music, and people love it," he says.

A founder of the DC Blues Society, Cephas serves on the executive committee of the National Council for the Traditional Arts and received a National Heritage Fellowship Award in 1989, the U.S. government's highest honor for a traditional artist.

"The blues has contributed so much to American Music," Cephas, says. It's important to keep it alive.

Cephas and Wiggins take blues music from a variety of traditions - Texas, Delta and songs by Bessie Smith - and give it a Piedmont feel, Bolton says. They also have plenty of original material. "Both are very good writers," he adds.

Bolton calls Cephas a pioneer and Saturday's concert a "rare opportunity."

Cephas and Wiggins are celebrating the release of their most recent recording, "Somebody Told the Truth," a collection of traditional and original songs.

There will of course be Piedmont blues, and Cephas promises some Delta tunes as well.

"We're coming up there to have a good time," Cephas says.

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