RIP Piedmont Bluesman John Cephas

The Foggy Bottom-born blues guitarist and singer from the W.C. Handy Award-winning duo Cephas and Wiggins died of natural causes yesterday at the age of 78. The AP obit is here.

Cephas was a big deal in the blues world -- one of the very last exponents of true, traditional acoustic blues. In 1987, he and harp player Phil Wiggins won the Handy Award for blues entertainer of the year -- an unheard-of honor for a traditional blues act. Two years later, Cephas received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, a sort of living treasure award for American folk artists.

He was an important figure locally, too, having founded helped launch the D.C. Blues Society while carrying the torch for Piedmont-style blues, which are defined by rhythmically complex finger-picked acoustic guitar work.

"The music itself, played in the technique that we play it, when people hear, it is so emotionally captivating," Cephas told The Post in 2003. "You hear that wonderfully melodic, alternating thumb and finger, you just stop and say, 'I want to go hear more of that!' It's an instant emotional appeal, and people all over, wherever they heard it, they're just drawn into it."

After the jump, you'll find a lengthy profile of Cephas that I just plucked from our electronic archives. It was written by Richard Harrington and published Sept. 27, 1989, on the cover of the Style section.

But first, a video of Cephas in action. It begins with a quick primer on the Piedmont style before Cephas really starts to ramp up.

The Country Calling of the Bluesman

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer

The blues "was just a part of life, behind the scenes," says John Cephas. "Coming out of the time of segregation and a lot of bigotry and downgrading of almost anything that the black man did, I was aware that this was good music, but I never thought of it as being first-rate, world-class art."

The Washington-bred, Virginia-rooted Cephas, 59, is one of 13 recipients of National Heritage Fellowships, which are being bestowed today by the National Endowment for the Arts at a congressional reception on Capitol Hill (with a free public gala tomorrow night at Lisner Auditorium). The fellowships, awarded annually by the Folk Arts Program since 1982, represent official recognition of people who preserve cultural legacies in music, dance and crafts.

"My heart's been fluttering and carrying on about this thing ever since I was told," says Cephas. "I never dreamed I would be so honored."

More important than the $5,000 grants is the validation of these culturally diverse practitioners who are so crucial to the fabric of American culture. In honoring Cephas, the NEA is also honoring the blues tradition, whose impact is felt in every other style of American music from jazz and gospel to rock and rhythm and blues.

Cephas, a handsome salt-of-the-earth man, is as engaging a living resource as you could want, which may explain why the State Department, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Council for the Traditional Arts and assorted public and private organizations have made him a traveling ambassador of the blues. Over the last decade, he and his partner, harmonica player Phil Wiggins, have performed not only in the United States but in Africa, Europe, South and Central America, China and the Soviet Union. They just came back from a three-week tour of Australia.

"It's not just black music, it's part of American culture, so why shouldn't all people be aware of it?" Cephas says proudly. He's been inspiring blues fans since the mid-'70s, when his gifts became public at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife. He's a master of the rhythmically complex Piedmont-blues guitar style, as well as a forceful singer and a thoroughly engaging personality for whom there are no distinctions between entertaining and informing.

Over the last three decades Washington has been a low-key center for traditional acoustic country blues. Besides Cephas and Wiggins, the genre has been wonderfully represented in John Jackson (a fellowship recipient in 1987), Archie Edwards, street singer Flora Molton and the late Esther Mae "Mother" Scott. Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt both lived here in the '60s.

Cephas has a good idea why.

"We're fairly close to the South, and in the {black} migration from the South to the North, a lot of 'em stopped here in Washington, D.C.," he says. "What they did was carry on the same traditions they carried on back in their homes.

"On weekends they would have these big house parties," he continues. "It was a time for partyin' and rejoicing after a hard week's work and the people in the city, just like the people working in the fields in the country, couldn't wait for that time to come on Fridays and Saturdays."

And, Cephas points out, "there were so many good traditional musicians that came out of the South. They'd stop right here, and the styles kind of held true to the area that they came from." While the Delta style emphasized single-string progression, Piedmont-style guitar features alternated thumb and finger, with the thumb creating a steady, loping bass as the melody is simultaneously picked out on the treble strings. "But it's all blues," he says.

Still, it's country blues that have taken Cephas around the world, and it's a warm Southern country sensibility that informs his character.

Cephas was born in Foggy Bottom and grew up there, though his family spent their summers in Bowling Green, a two-block-long town in the Tidewater section of Virginia. Although he now lives on a farm in nearby Woodford, Cephas has long carried "Bowling Green" as a part of his name, a hallowed blues tradition that dates back to Tampa Red, Memphis Slim, Louisiana Red and Mississippi John Hurt.

"I've always been really a country person at heart," he says. "I never was too much satisfied in the city, even when I was young. Down where I live now is where the roots of my family were ... and I was very much content there. I carried that through all of my life and when I finally decided to settle, I settled there, I built my home there, I built a house for my mother and father."

Two years ago Cephas retired after 22 years as a carpenter for the National Guard Armory, and he worked for Pepco for 14 years before that. "My own reason for staying {in Washington} is the jobs I had were here, but my heart was never here. My heart was always in the country."

His father, a utility worker and Baptist preacher, envisioned himself a guitarist, but after his son started playing on the sly -- and proved to be more adept even as a 10-year-old -- he surrendered it. John Cephas's early influences included a cousin, David Talliaferro, regarded as one of the finest guitarists in Virginia's Caroline County, and "my Aunt Lillian. That was my first exposure to blues guitar and the sound of the blues," Cephas recalls. "She had a boyfriend, Hayle Dorsey, a very accomplished musician, and he used to come around, and so I'd hear him and my aunt play. She used to try and teach me notes on the guitar when I was just a little tot. It sounded so good to me."

"John used to be playing all the time," says Lillian Dixon, who still lives in her Northeast Washington house a few blocks from Union Station. "Even then he was a wonderful player and he knew every chord. I could make those chords, too, and I would make him give me the right tunes because I could catch things -- I knew when it was just right and when it was off."

Cephas also listened to 78s and caught occasional visits by the likes of the Rev. Gary Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson ("those blind people were innovators who could do more with a guitar without sight than I can with sight," he says). He was also assimilating more urban blues, early country music, ragtime and gospel. The other element of his distinctive style, his resonant singing and contemporary phrasing, came from his mother, and from the church.

"My mother taught me religious music," he recalls. "We used to go to church on a daily basis and she'd teach us to sing hymns in the home. And Sunday was church all day long. If you listen to the way I sing, it's very much with the religious expression, only using everyday life as a text. I think this is true with many blues musicians -- they have some scrape or influence from the church. The music had its roots in Africa and it was very emotional in the church -- swinging and swaying -- and that's what it's all about. There's a link with church and the blues -- the music is the same, it's just the subject matter that's different."

That difference has created "an ongoing battle from slavery time," Cephas says. "The {black} church always frowned upon any music not geared to their {message}. If you played blues, you were playing the Devil's music, you were actually worshiping the Devil in your expressions."

There was some irony, of course, which Cephas sensed even in his own home. "I came from a religious family -- my father was a minister -- and I remember him telling us not to go to those houses of ill repute where people were drinking and having a good time and playing blues. And on Fridays and Saturdays, they'd have a party at our house and the musicians would come in, playing the blues, drinking and carousing all night and having a good time. I always thought that hypocritical, when the guitar struck up and you saw who'd be on the floor with Sister So-and-so or Deacon So-and-so. ..."

Cephas says this genially, but there were genuine tensions with his parents after it became apparent that he would pursue the blues. "They'd say, 'This is not the direction to go.' My mother took it with her to her death -- she'd always tell me to stop playing the blues and give all my time to the church."

Lillian Dixon says, "She would rather him give his time and talent to God instead of out in the world. John was baptized and joined the church, but he loved this, you know, as youngsters do, and he still loves it. Now that's his world."

Even after Cephas's emergence in the '70s and the growing acclaim -- he and Wiggins won the W.C. Handy Award as traditional blues entertainers of the year in 1987 and have received numerous musical and civic honors -- his parents had mixed emotions. "They savored all of that, and when my mother would talk to her friends, she'd with so much delight tell them things I was doing and the recognition that was coming. She'd take pride in that. But in private, she'd tell me, 'You're just not giving enough time to the Lord. ... You don't give God any of your time.'

"And then it got to the point where she'd say, 'Well, you don't have to give Him all of your time. You can still play blues, but give Him some of your time.' "

In fact, Cephas had been giving his time to his work. "I was an 8-to-4 carpenter, and on the weekends I was a musician and partygoer," he says. "That's where we used to have fun. I didn't really consider myself a musician, just a guitar player. I'd go to the parties and never get paid hardly; they'd just give you something to eat and something to drink, like that, you know."

It was in the mid-'70s that he met Big Chief Ellis at a birthday party. Ellis, a barrelhouse blues pianist who'd recorded in New York in the '40s, had moved to Washington to operate a liquor store and had not been active for almost two decades. In the early '70s his energies, and his musical career, were quietly revived by Dick Spottswood of the Library of Congress; when Ellis and Cephas began playing around town, "it allowed me to get the first exposure to organizations presenting this traditional form of music as an art form. This music was born in the black communities, played for house parties and private entertainment, not on concert stages and festivals." After Ellis died in 1977, Cephas joined forces with Wiggins to form a classic duo along the lines of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

One of the few things troubling John Cephas is that the blues isn't well appreciated in the community it sprang from. For instance, Wiggins is a rarity, a gifted young black musician who has chosen to play in the blues idiom, and not even the more popular electric side, at that.

"It's very disappointing for me. The blues is a creation of black people in communities all across this country when times were hard," Cephas says. "It was a way of expression, an outlet, and it's had so much impact. It's part of the culture of black people and they take no interest in it whatsoever. They don't even come to patronize us at concerts, which are 90 percent white or other ethnic groups. They look down on it as cryin' music -- 'no one wants to hear that down-home sad stuff ... '

"Yet black culture is appreciated elsewhere. It gets respect," he adds. "Almost everywhere we travel, the blues has been accepted." Cephas isn't giving up the fight at home, though. He and Wiggins have a theatrical presentation, "Chewin' the Blues," that's been performed at the Kennedy Center and in school systems around the country. It's geared to young people, "to expose them to the blues and give them a little historical background."

There are also blues workshops, and according to Wiggins, Cephas is a natural teacher.

"There's no separation in his music and his life," says Wiggins. "One of the reasons he's such a good player is that in his life in general, he's a very generous person. His parents were very generous people and they instilled that in John, and that's what makes him such an excellent teacher. There's times when we get through playing a gig and I'm tired, ready to pack it in and just look for a bed, and John's off somewhere showing somebody some lick on the guitar. He's always got time for that, and the energy."

"John's always teaching. Sometimes he's teaching even when people don't ask him," says Wiggins. "One of things that attracted me to playing with John was that he has always been willing to learn new stuff and to make new arrangements of old stuff. It's not like someone who's been playing for so many years that they're not interested in changing or developing. He's always trying new things and improving what he does, keeping it alive and exciting."

Says Lillian Dixon, "He'll win you over and let you see through it for yourself. What John's doing now is the real thing. You can enjoy it and you can feel happy, you can feel sad, you can feel any way you want to. It's according to what you want and what you get out of it."

It's a process Cephas has been able to focus on intently since retiring two years ago. "If I couldn't play," he says, "I'd probably just waste away and die."

Instead, he champions the blues: A new Cephas-Wiggins album has just been released on Flying Fish; more world tours are planned; there are new fans to be made. Meanwhile, Cephas is honored by the NEA, making official the appreciation he's won from family and friends for many decades. That doesn't surprise Dixon, who remembers the familial advice directed at John Cephas as he was growing up.

"Whatever you do, be the best. Try. Let it account for something."

Still, she'd like him to slow down just a bit. "I'm worried about his holding up to it," she says. "But that's his life, his talent."

By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 5, 2009; 11:20 AM ET Appreciations , Legends
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

John Cephas was one of several folks who founded the DC Blues Society. It is misleading to say he founded it. He was the Society's 1st President and gave generously over the years to help the Society thrive.

Posted by: rbluesw | March 6, 2009 5:01 PM

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