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Blues alums return

Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris to perform at 15th annual festival

May 29, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • Phil Wiggins will make his fourth appearance at the Western Maryland Blues Fest on Sunday, June 6.
Photo by Terry Poffenbaugh,

Most music fans know Phil Wiggins as half of the blues duo Cephas & Wiggins.

But with death of his long-time friend and stage partner John Cephas, Wiggins is now beginning the next chapter in his musical career.

Wiggins, 56, of Takoma Park, Md., will perform at the 15th annual Western Maryland Blues Fest on Sunday - his fourth performance at Hagerstown's music festival.

The Blues Fest kicks off Thursday, June 3, with a free blues prelude concert at University Plaza Park downtown and continues through Sunday with a free show at Hagerstown's City Park.

Wiggins and Corey Harris will also conduct a workshop at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 6, at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in City Park.

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But this time, the harmonica player will be joined by guitar player and fellow Blues Fest alum Harris.

"That's the exciting thing about the transition," Wiggins said. "I have the opportunity to experiment."

Cephas & Wiggins performed at the Blues Fest in 1996, 1998 and 2005. Critics and music writers lauded Cephas & Wiggins as luminaries of Piedmont blues tradition. The Piedmont stretches from central Virginia and continues south to parts of northern Georgia. The technique is characterized by alternating thumb and finger-picking style, Cephas said in a 2003 Herald-Mail article.

But for Cephas & Wiggins, more than 30 years of making music came to an end.

Cephas died on March 4, 2009.

"You know, it's a huge transition, the whole grieving process. I'm realizing it seems to go in cycles," Wiggins said. "John is a huge musician and an incredible influence on my life. I don't know that replacing him will be possible."

Falling in love with blues

Wiggins grew up near Washington, D.C., but his family spent the summers in Alabama at the home of his grandmother, the late Effie Carter.

Carter was a very religious woman, Wiggins said, and lived three doors down from the Baptist church she attended. He walked his grandmother to her Wednesday night prayer meetings - it was after dark and she didn't want to be alone.

He was a boy at the time, about 10 years old. He hung around the church, listening to the elderly women attendees sing what he described as deep hymns or prayers of praise, falling into a pattern of call and response as they sang.

"In terms of what I was hearing, aside from the words of the song, it was really pretty much a pure blues kind of sound," Wiggins said, "and I really kind of suspected that's how I fell in love with the sound of the blues - listening to those women sing a capella. It was really deep and it transported me."

Why Wiggins plays the harp

Wiggins had toy harmonicas growing up. By age 12, he started saxophone lessons, but he didn't continue. He grew up in a military family, which meant he had to move often. A school he attended in Northern Virginia didn't have a music program, so he had to give up the sax.

"That's when I had to go out and buy the harmonica because at the time it was cheap and I could afford one with the money I made on my paper route," Wiggins said.

His first blues harp cost $5.

The turning point

Wiggins said he developed an appetite for the harmonica by jamming with the steady stream of neighborhood musicians who came to his house hoping to play with his brother, Skip, who played electric guitar.

But it was an experience playing with a blind street musician that changed his life.

Flora Molton was a sanctified minister and street musician who played in the streets of Washington, D.C. Wiggins recalled her playing guitar downtown. She kept rhythm with a tambourine on her foot and kept a cup on the edge of her guitar for change.

She'd minister to people on the street. Wiggins and a friend wanted to get her recorded.

"She had a voice that could cut through the noise of city traffic like a razor blade," Wiggins said. "That kind of music that completely connects to your heart and also involves a lot of improvisation where you're witnessing something new being created on the spot."

Wiggins and Molton jammed together some. Then Molton invited Wiggins to perform with her at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival - the biggest audience he'd ever faced at that point.

"I'm on the mall during that festival and I do think that is what made me turn the corner and made me take this seriously," Wiggins said.

Cephas & Wiggins

Wiggins said he met Cephas at a Smithsonian Folklife Festival a few years after he and Molton had played together. At the time, Cephas was performing with Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis' Barrelhouse Rockers. Cephas and Wiggins met during a jam session and eventually Wiggins was invited to join the Barrelhouse Rockers. He played with them for nearly two years until Ellis' death.

Then, Cephas tapped Wiggins to perform with him, starting a decades-long blues partnership. Wiggins said Cephas decided to stop performing due to illness.

He died of natural causes at age 78.

The last album they recorded together was "Richmond Blues" off the Smithsonian Folkways label in 2008.

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