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Phil Wiggins plays on the Library of Congress Neptune Plaza, 1981. Photo by Library of Congress photographer John T. Gibbs.

Homegrown Plus: Blues with Phil Wiggins (1954-2024)

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Welcome to a special edition of Homegrown Plus. The passing of harmonica virtuoso and blues master Phil Wiggins on May 7, 2024, was a sad event for the music world, and particularly for the American Folklife Center. Phil was one of the most celebrated musicians in the blues nationwide, and one of the most important roots musicians of any kind in the Washington area. For those reasons among others, AFC has featured Phil in concerts probably more often than any other musician during the last few decades. In this post, we’ll bring together videos of many of Phil’s concert appearances, show you some never-before-seen photos of Phil, and pay tribute to a longtime friend of the Center.

Phil Wiggins was a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and you can find a full biography at their website at this link. (Better yet, you can read the largely autobiographical book Phil wrote with Frank Matheis!) Since these biographical resources are available, I’ll just sketch out a brief outline of Phil’s musical life here.

Two men play guitar and harmonica in an outdoor concert. Twelve audience members are visible in the photo as well.
John Cephas (left) and Phil Wiggins played in AFC’s Neptune Plaza Concert Series 4 times, in 1981, 1985, 1988, and 1990. This photo from 1981 is by Library of Congress photographer John T. Gibbs.

Phil Wiggins was born here in Washington, D.C. in 1954. He spent his childhood summers at his grandmother’s home in Alabama, where he listened to old-time hymns sung in church in the traditional call-and-response style. Phil was attracted to the blues harp as a young man and began his musical career in Washington, learning from such extraordinary elders as Flora Molton, Esther Mae Scott (“Mother Scott”), Johnny Shines, Sunnyland Slim, Sam Chatmon, Robert Belfour, Howard Armstrong, John Jackson, Archie Edwards, and Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis. Phil also developed his harmonica sound by listening to performances and recordings of Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, and Junior Wells, as well as to many piano and horn players. In 1976, through piano player Big Chief Ellis, Phil met the D.C.-born, Virginia-raised Piedmont blues guitarist John Cephas. Soon Phil joined Ellis’s band alongside John, and only a couple of months after they first met, in September of 1976, Cephas and Wiggins played as part of Ellis’s band at one of the American Folklife Center’s first concerts, a celebration for the restoration of the Neptune Plaza here at the Library of Congress. Sadly, we don’t seem to have recorded the concert, but a Library of Congress photographer did attend the event. So far I’ve only found a contact sheet, but we believe the negatives are retrievable in a few weeks time–in the meantime see a low-quality scan below!

Left to right, this photo shows John Cephas (guitar), Phil Wiggins (harmonica), Big Chief Ellis (piano), and James Bellman (bass). John Cephas and Phil Wiggins began playing together in this band, but I’ve never seen a photo before. Apologies for the poor quality of this one; so far I’ve only located a contact sheet, and enlarged and enhanced this image from that source. If we find and scan the negative, I’ll swap in the new scan!

Splitting off from Big Chief Ellis’s band, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins played together as a duo for over 30 years. In that time they became one of the most significant acts in blues, playing across the country and around the world. They came to define the “Piedmont blues” style for a generation of aficionados. They performed four times in AFC’s Neptune Plaza Concert Series, in 1981, 1985, 1988, and 1990. All of Phil’s five appearances at the Library of Congress with John Cephas occurred in the years before there was a mechanism to present audio or video freely to the public, and as a consequence we didn’t seek permission to do so, but you can listen to recordings of the Neptune Plaza concerts by visiting us at our research center in Washington, D.C.

Two men play guitar and harmonica
John Cephas (left) and Phil Wiggins played in AFC’s Neptune Plaza Concert Series 4 times, in 1981, 1985, 1988, and 1990. This photo from 1985 is by Library of Congress photographer John T. Gibbs. Gibbs was working in challenging conditions, and the original was badly backlit. I’ve done considerable work to make John and Phil visible.

Many of us at the American Folklife Center became friends with Phil during his time with John Cephas.  Our production team worked on their concerts, and several of us also worked for the Smithsonian festivals at which John and Phil first met, and at which they frequently played, as our friend Jeff Place recently remembered.

Since John Cephas’s death in 2009, Phil has played solo, with his band the Chesapeake Sheiks, and with many other musical friends. In those last fifteen years of his life, in addition to masterful harmonica playing, he continued to develop the skills as a singer and songwriter which had marked his work with Cephas. As a harmonica player, singer, songwriter, and musical collaborator of the highest caliber, Phil Wiggins continued to contribute new music to the blues tradition until the end of his life.

Phil Wiggins plays harmonica, seated outdoors on the Library of Congress Neptune Plaza.
Phil Wiggins plays in the American Folklife Center’s Neptune Plaza Concert Series on July 21, 1988. Photo by Library of Congress photographer John Gibbs.

All of us who knew Phil remember him fondly. I was an admirer of Cephas and Wiggins’s music before I ever met them, and their recordings were part of the soundtrack of my life. Very soon after I moved to the Washington area to take a position at AFC, I didn’t know whether I’d fit in and grow to like the area. One day I had the window open in my apartment in Silver Spring, and I heard what I thought was a neighbor playing a Cephas and Wiggins record. That was comforting in itself, but then the song ended and I heard a low voice talking about the next song. I suddenly realized that Cephas and Wiggins were playing live outdoors on Ellsworth Plaza, right next door, and I could hear them through my apartment window! I hurried out to see the rest of the set, and met John and Phil after the show. The experience convinced me that maybe I’d like the DC area after all. For the next 18 years or so, during many meetings and conversations, Phil kept making me feel welcome. Once I watched Phil play a great set outdoors in Takoma Park. I had another commitment right after his set, so I left immediately after he finished. Later that day I got a Facebook message from Phil saying he’d seen me from the stage. He thanked me for listening and expressed regret that we didn’t get a chance to talk. It was a gesture of kindness and thoughtfulness I wouldn’t expect from most of my musical idols!

Phil also didn’t pull punches if you asked for his real thoughts and feelings, and in interviews and less formal conversations over the years he spoke about memories of racial discrimination and other abuses that he and his family have suffered. He said it was sometimes a struggle to maintain the calm and friendly demeanor we all knew so well. In conversation, the struggle only showed when he told those painful stories. But of course, you could feel the emotion pouring out of him when he sang and played the blues. Phil’s art came from pain as well as from joy, and he shared himself when he shared his music. The American Folklife Center extends condolences to his wife and daughters, his other family, and his friends and fans.

Concert Videos and Links

Sadly, John Cephas died in 1989, which was about the time the American Folklife Center began shooting concerts on video and placing them online, so none of our online videos features Phil with his longtime musical partner. But only a few months after Cephas’s death, Phil participated in a concert here at the Library of Congress which IS online: The Legends and Legacies concert, honoring the folklorist Joe Wilson, who did pioneering work at the National Council for Traditional Arts and elsewhere. For this concert, Phil teamed up with Corey Harris, a groundbreaking blues guitarist and singer known for bringing the blues closer to its African roots while also collaborating with a wide range of popular artists.

Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris, onstage at their soundcheck for AFC’s Legends and Legacies Concert, September 11, 2009. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Harris has shared stages, recorded, and toured with an esteemed array of musicians, including BB King, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, Henry Butler, R.L. Burnside, John Jackson, Ali Farka Toure, Dave Matthews Band, Tracy Chapman, Olu Dara, Wilco, and Natalie Merchant. Harris was featured as an artist and narrator in Martin Scorcese’s critically acclaimed documentary “Feel Like Going Home” (2003), tracing the blues from its origins in West Africa to the southern United States. In 2007, just a couple of years before his appearance at the Library with Phil Wiggins, Harris was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “genius grant,” for his innovative and eclectic approach to music. This prestigious grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation acknowledged Harris as an artist who fearlessly forges new paths. For all these reasons, we were honored to present Phil Wiggins in a duo with Corey Harris, and their set appears at 02:01:00 of the concert video in the player below.

For his next appearance at the Library of Congress, we invited Phil to perform with a group we billed as Phil Wiggins and Friends, an all-star blues and dance group including Phil (harmonica and vocals), Rick Franklin (guitar and vocals) Marcus Moore (violin) and Junious Brickhouse (dance). Rick Franklin has been entertaining D.C.-area audiences with his own mixture of traditional Piedmont blues and early commercial “hokum” blues for over thirty years, and is one of the area’s favorite blues musicians. Marcus Childs Moore is a Marion, Alabama native who earned his bachelors in Jazz Violin Performance from City College of New York in 2009. Marcus has performed with numerous musical greats and legends, and was a member of the Harlem Symphony Orchestra for two years. Junious “House” Brickhouse is an award-winning urban dance educator, choreographer, community leader, folklorist, and cultural preservationist. As founder and executive director of Urban Artistry, Inc., Junious has inspired and created a movement of artists dedicated to the authentic preservation of urban dance culture and community while finding ways to responsibly innovate.

Through a typographical error somewhere in the Library, the Phil Wiggins and Friends concert came to be described as “Acoustical Blues and Dance from Maryland.” This unusual phrasing had an old-fashioned ring that amused Phil, so we’ve kept it! After their concert at the Library of Congress, the quartet continued to perform, and were billed as The Phil Wiggins House Party. Join the party in the player below!

Phil’s next appearance at the Library of Congress had its roots in a sad situation affecting some of Phil’s friends: in January, 2015, the American Folklife Center had signed a contract with National Heritage Fellows the Holmes Brothers for an appearance in April. Already suffering from the loss of their drummer Popsy Dixon, who had just passed away, the famous trio was reduced to the duo of Sherman and Wendell Homes. By March, Wendell had become ill and invited his apprentice, the talented guitarist Brooks Long, to join the group. As his health declined, Wendell withdrew from the concert entirely, and Long took his place in the lineup. We asked Phil Wiggins to join Holmes and Long for the show, and the three did a marvelous job. At the time, blues musician and folklorist Barry Lee Pearson wrote a biographical essay about the Holmes Brothers for us, which you can read at this link. Enjoy the concert in the player below!

In 2017, Phil participated in the first of our Archive Challenge Sampler Concerts. For this concert, he was joined by piano player Ian Walters on a set that included several songs from our archive. We also did brief video interviews with the 5 artists who performed short sets. We’ve already featured the 2017 sampler concert and interview in a Homegrown Plus blog, which you can find at this link. The blog will tell you the specific times at which to find Phil’s set and interview–but it might be fun to watch the whole thing!

The next time Phil came to see us, it was to lead one of our “Summer Music Jam” series on September 29, 2018. The idea of the jams is to be a welcoming atmosphere where all skill levels are invited to play along. Since it might discourage beginners from showing up to play, we don’t record the jams and put them online, so we don’t have video of this fun event.  But I did take some photos of the Blues Jam, which you can see in this blog post.

Phil Wiggins sings and Eleanor Ellis plays guitar
Phil Wiggins, singer and harmonica virtuoso, NEA National Heritage Fellow, leads a Jam with the help of Eleanor Ellis, guitarist and singer. At AFC’s Blues Jam in the VHP Information Center, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, September 29, 2018. Photo by Stephen Winick

What turned out to be Phil’s final performance for us was a concert he recorded at home as part of our “Homegrown at Home” video premiere series, which allowed us to keep bringing you great music during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time we quoted the National Council for the Traditional Arts, who said:

“Phil Wiggins is arguably America’s foremost blues harmonica virtuoso. While rooted in the melodic Piedmont or ‘Tidewater’ blues of the Chesapeake region, his mastery of the instrument now transcends stylistic boundaries. Born in Washington D.C. in 1954, Phil Wiggins achieved worldwide acclaim over three decades as one half of the premier Piedmont blues duo of Cephas & Wiggins. Since the death of guitarist and singer John Cephas in 2009, Phil has brought his harmonica wizardry to bear in a variety of musical collaborations.”

We premiered the solo video on September 23, 2020. Find this last concert in the player below.

Phil Wiggins and Ben Hunter with Junious Brickhouse (and Me)!

Soon after we premiered Phil’s “Homegrown at Home” video, I interviewed Phil in an online video call and we recorded it for the Library. The plan was to present the video alongside the concert in the “Homegrown Plus” series. Unfortunately, as the result of a serious illness of the video’s producer soon after it was shot, that interview video seems to have been lost. (Luckily, the producer recovered!)

However, we do have an interview panel to share with you. On November 4, 2024, the American Folklore Society and its Music and Song Section hosted An Evening with Phil Wiggins and Ben Hunter, which also included Junious Brickhouse and me as moderators. You can find that interview embedded in this memorial page for Phil Wiggins over at the American Folklore Society website.

We’ll be back with more great photos of Phil from the archive. Stay tuned!

Until Next Time…

John Cephas (right) and Phil Wiggins (left) played in AFC’s Neptune Plaza Concert Series 4 times, in 1981, 1985, 1988, and 1990. This photo from 1985 is by Library of Congress photographer John T. Gibbs.

As always, thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For several years, we’ve been presenting the concerts here on the blog with related interviews and links, in the series Homegrown Plus. (Find the whole series here!) For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For all available past concert videos, visit the Homegrown video list on the Library of Congress website.

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