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Richmond Blues

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The following is a guest blog from Ed O’Reilly, Head of the NLS Collection Development Section. He is a folklore specialist, with a strong interest in American folk music.  

The blog highlights a recent addition to the Music Section’s offerings: Richmond Blues John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, NLS book number DBM 03642, with its liner notes narrated to make the recording fully accessible for Music Section patrons.

Anyone whose interest has been engaged by the magic of John Cephas and Phil Wiggins will want to tune in to a 1989 documentary film called Blues Houseparty, available free online through Folkstreams (,234). The film offers a generous hour-long slice of an informal gathering at the home of John Jackson in Fairfax Station, Virginia. The company includes not only the incomparable Jackson himself, but Cephas and Wiggins, Archie Edwards, and Flora Molton, as well as John Dee Holeman.

The musicians talk, joke, sing and play guitar, and, throughout the hour, define and contextualize their art better than any exposition I could offer. Their music is central to a whole way of life that has largely disappeared with the passing of these artists. Flora Molton died in 1990, Edwards in 1998, Jackson in 2002, and Cephas in 2009.

Followers of the Piedmont tradition continue to make music–in some cases brilliantly–but without question, a singular generation is gone. Contemporary bearers of the tradition are looking to hybrids and new directions. Phil Wiggins is as dazzling a harmonica virtuoso as he ever was during his 30-year partnership with John Cephas, but his interests currently are taking him beyond the borders of the traditional Piedmont style Cephas’s playing was anything but rudimentary, but he made it look easy; and he remains our most direct link to the Piedmont’s vibrant musical past.

The Piedmont style is by now well documented, and Barry Lee Pearson’s notes to Richmond Blues make a good primer. Cephas and Wiggins themselves represent a progress beyond the music of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and, earlier still, Blind Boy Fuller. If you listen to selections from each of these units back to back you’ll hear the continuity, right down to instrumental conjuring tricks, enunciation, and vocal timbre. But Cephas’s guitar was more varied and detailed than that of his predecessors (he creditably incorporated the great Gary Davis, as well as Carl Martin and Bill Broonzy), and Wiggins’s harmonica was more nuanced and eloquent than Terry’s.

Highly ecumenical and with a capacity for light-heartedness that perhaps understandably eluded many of the great practitioners of the Delta blues, the Piedmont (or East Coast) style enriched itself simply by virtue of its location. The Delta was geographically and racially set apart from regions of wider cultural diversity to its northeast and to its west; and some of what may be said to distinguish Piedmont from Delta style may be said as well about Texas. Sprawling  between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachians, the Piedmont is a commercially  dynamic region that enabled swift and abundant cultural diffusion. (Texas, of course, occupies the space between New Orleans and the Pacific.)

“Blues” has often been used somewhat misleadingly to circumscribe a broad field of African American musical traditions, and the music associated with the Delta lends itself more readily to this restrictive use. But the African American traditions of the Piedmont incorporate many influences beyond the blues–a mélange of styles and techniques, including music from rural stringbands, churches, and commercial popular culture–jazz, ragtime, theatrical novelties–whether disseminated face to face or by means of radio, phonograph records, or traveling shows and itinerant performers. Almost anything might get itself assimilated.

To make this point, Mack McCormick introduced Texas sharecropper Mance Lipscomb as a “songster,” on Lipscomb’s first Arhoolie LP in 1960, even though there were many blues in his repertoire. One of John Jackson’s first comments in Blues Houseparty references the dance tunes “Boil ’em Cabbage Down” and “Get Along Home, Cindy,” both staples of white rural stringband musicians. The interplay of white and African American culture in the Piedmont region as well as in parts of the Appalachians has not been overlooked in the copious documentation of these areas. Musical cross-pollination is exemplified in the collaboration between A.P. Carter and the black singer and guitar player Lesley Riddle. And some commentators have averred that a demonstration and celebration of this interaction is one of the key underlying motives of the 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith.

The real musical lives of Cephas and Wiggins seem to support Elijah Wald’s argument in Escaping the Delta  (1994) that “the blues” have been mystified, mythologized, romanticized, demonized, and variously misrepresented–by design or through ignorance–to a point of unrecognizability. There was nothing of the devil-music mystique about John Cephas: he was open, intelligent, forthcoming, and good humored, playing blues, rags, popular songs, gospel tunes–probably anything that struck his fancy and came within the scope of his skills. For three decades Cephas and Wiggins performed friends and fans, for festival audiences and playgoers (notably stealing the show as the highlight of a 2002 Washington, D.C., adaptation of a forgotten play by Zora Neale Hurston, Polk County), for politicians and royalty on several continents, and always, one suspects, out of an enduring commitment to the music and the traditions that sustained it.

On June 21, 2014, a highway marker honoring the man and his music was unveiled in John Cephas’s home town, Bowling Green, Virginia. In the attached photo, Phil Wiggins looks on.  

Photo of Highway Marker honoring John Cephas, with Phil Wiggins looking on.
Photo of Highway Marker honoring John Cephas, with Phil Wiggins looking on.


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