Cephas & Wiggins are leading exponents of the Piedmont Blues –
specifically the Piedmont-style guitar, featuring alternating thumb and finger,
with the thumb creating a steady, loping bass as the melody is simultaneously
picked out on the treble strings. The two met in 1977 at the Smithsonian
Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., where Cephas was playing in the band of
pianist Big Chief Ellis and Wiggins was accompanying gospel singer-guitarist
Flora Melton. Along with pianist Wilber “Big Chief” Ellis and bassist James
Bellamy, John and Phil formed the Barrelhouse Rockers. A year after Ellis’
death, the duo of Cephas & Wiggins was born.
Almost immediately after the two musicians joined forces, the blues community
proclaimed them as the new champions of the East Coast Piedmont style of blues
first popularized by artists like Blind Boy Fuller, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind
Willie McTell and Blind Blake. Since teaming up, they have toured the world,
including the former Soviet Union, where they were the first Americans to
perform at the Russian National Folk Festival in Moscow. In 1987, they were
awarded the “W.C. Handy Blues Entertainers of the Year” and “Best Traditional
Album of the Year.”
After hundreds of concerts at major festivals, concert halls and colleges (not
to mention the many workshops the two conduct), Cephas & Wiggins continue
to bring energetic good times to each performance, winning new fans everywhere
they go. They have performed in living rooms for only a handful of people and
in front of thousands at blues festivals all over the world. They even
entertained at President Clinton’s inaugural party in 1997.
To Cephas & Wiggins, the blues lyric is the poetry of the African-American
experience. Says Cephas, “The blues is a creation of black people in
communities all across this country when times were hard. It was a way of
expression, an outlet, and it’s had so much impact. Blues music is truth. The
lyrics are true-to-life experiences that people everywhere can relate to.”
“People automatically think of sadness and depression when they think of blues.
But the blues is uplifting music, music to rejuvenate you, to nourish the
spirit. When you get down, the blues will pick you up again. Blues is
nourishment for the human spirit,” says Wiggins.
They choose their repertoire carefully, not only for musical impact, but also
to highlight the cultural and historical content of their genre. Their concert
performance evokes life in the post-Reconstruction South. Hard work,
celebration, joy, and struggle are all there. A verse that may sound like a
straightforward love song may also contain an allusion to African tribal
culture or the indignities of racism or an optimistic assertion of a better
future. Cephas & Wiggins provide their audiences with a very special
treat – a powerful and intelligent performance of a wonderful, American
treasure, the blues.