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Cephas & Wiggins Championed The Piedmont Blues

Elvert Barnes
Flickr - Creative Commons
Phil Wiggins (left) and John Cephas in June 2007 playing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Piedmont style mainly mixes Ragtime, Gospel, string band reels, and ballads with touches of Country and even Rhythm and Blues. It is a much lighter style than the Delta Blues of Mississippi. Piedmont originated a century ago in the Appalachian foothills between Richmond, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia. There are musicologists who say it grew out of the country dance bands of the colonial era.

The duo of guitarist and vocalist John Cephas and harmonica player and vocalist Phil Wiggins were central in reacquainting people with Piedmont Blues in the 1980s and 1990s. Though far apart in years, the pair was a perfectly complimentary blend of both instruments and vocals.

John Cephas was born in Washington, D. C. in 1930 but was raised in Bowling Green, Virginia. He started out singing Gospel, developing a beautifully smooth baritone voice, but also played a banjo-inspired guitar style.

At a young age Cephas discovered Piedmont Blues records and loved pretty much everything he heard, especially Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller and The Reverend Gary Davis.


Like Cephas, Phil Wiggins was born in Washington, D. C., though in 1954. He spent summers in Titusville, Alabama, his family's original home.

Street singer Flora Molton taught him harmonica and her festival appearances introduced him to Johnny Shines, "Big Chief" Ellis and others. Although he learned from most of the musicians with whom he has played, Wiggins attributes particular importance to Sonny Terry's complex style.

Cephas and Wiggins first met jamming at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife in 1976. They formed the Barrelhouse Ramblers with 'Big Chief' Ellis and became a duo when Ellis died a year later. Cephas and Wiggins toured throughout the World for years, often sponsored by the U.S. State Department.


Cephas and Wiggins first recorded in 1981 and released on many labels over the years, but some of their most important works were done for the Smithsonian Folkways Africa-American Legacy series.

John Cephas passed away in 2009 at age 78 and left proud legacy in Folk and Blues music.

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