If you asked blues fans to mentally picture a harmonica player, most of them would conjure up an image of a musician cupping their hands around the harp and a microphone, often a vintage model, blowing up a storm through an amplifier that might be as large and powerful as a guitar amplifier. Even though acoustic blues harp players were instrumental in establishing the music, these days you don’t hear much about pioneers like DeFord Bailey, Sonny Terry, Hammie Nixon, and Will Shade.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in acoustic blues will be familiar with “Harmonica” Phil Wiggins. A product of the still vibrant Washington D.C. acoustic blues community, Wiggins has played in a variety of settings, gaining worldwide fame during his 35 year partnership with guitarist John Cephas. The duo toured the world, releasing 12 albums, including three on Flying Fish Records and four on Alligator Records.
After Cephas passed away in 2009, Wiggins has continued to pursue a variety of opportunities to showcase his amazing harmonica skills. Last year, he released Sweet Bitter Blues: Washington D.C.’s Homemade Blues, a book that tells his story in addition to covering the history and contributors of the D.C scene. The book was co-written by Frank Matheis, a long-time contributor to Living Blues Magazine.
As noted on his website, “Phil Wiggins is a versatile traditional harmonica player……plays the diatonic ten-hole harmonica in the country blues style, cupping both hands around the instrument and playing acoustically. His sound is not gear, the microphone or the amplifier when performing on stage, instead by the complex syncopated patterns, breath-control and rhythm, stylistic virtuosity and fiery solo runs”.
Like a lot of musicians, Wiggins had parents who appreciated music. They listened to a lot of records, primarily jazz albums that featured piano. That was not surprising since his father played piano. Wiggins does not have any vivid memories of his father playing the instrument, primarily due to his father passing away at a relatively young age.
His mother later remarried to a military officer with little interest in music. Wiggins wanted to get involved in the school band, but his parents were not going to pay for an instrument and lessons. So, after saving money earned from his paper route, Wiggins bought his first harmonica.
“Cost was the main thing in picking the harmonica. But it also struck me as one of the most soulful and expressive instruments. When I picked it up and started trying to figure out how it worked, it felt like the harmonica works the same way as your voice. You have an idea in your mind that you want to express, and it just comes out, the same way speaking happens. In a lot of ways, it still feels that intuitive to me, except that, for me, the harmonica works better than my voice!”
Having an older brother, Skip, who was a fine guitar player and singer, proved quite beneficial to Wiggins gaining confidence as he tried to figure out his instrument, one note at a time.
“It was fortunate because as I was growing up, the best musicians in our neighborhood and at the high school were always hanging around my brother, having jam sessions and learning songs together. So I would sneak into the outskirts of the jams and kind of toot along. I was lucky in that regard. A lot of what I learned is from those live jams sessions. I didn’t have a harmonica teacher, nor did I listen to much harmonica music in those days. I was aware of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Sonny Terry was the only harmonica player I knew about when I was first starting to figure things out. My learning came from jamming along with guitar and piano players.
“The records I was stealing from were my parents records, which was another lucky thing for me. They collected a lot of classic jazz albums with lots of piano, clarinet, and trumpet on the turntable. Because I was stealing from those instruments instead of other harmonica players, I feel like I was able to develop my own style of playing.”
The Wiggins family had moved to the Washington D.C. area from Titusville, Alabama. In his younger years, Wiggins spent a lot of summers down south.
“I would stay with my grandmother. She and I got to be very close. When I was in junior high, my family lived overseas for about four years. When we came back to the States, my family moved in with her while my stepdad came to D.C. to find a house and get things set up. So we spent almost a whole school year in Titusville, which became my idea of home.
“When I started going to the Smithsonian Folklife Festivals, I would run into all of these musicians that they had brought up from the deep South. They would be sitting on the Mall in D.C., playing like they would in their own back yard. I hung out there non-stop because that felt like home. Those folks were very welcoming to me. I would play along with them. They seemed to enjoy having me around.
‘In high school, the only people playing music that I was drawn to were in the Folk club. I wasn’t into folk music, but I met a guitarist who was into the Merle Travis finger-picking style. That style came from the Piedmont style of blues guitar playing. A lot of the pickers doing the Travis style that got to be well known spoke about meeting black musicians utilizing that style, and learning from them.
“His playing appealed to me, so we ended up playing together a lot. At that time I was getting to know guitarists like John Jackson and Archie Edwards, as well as John Cephas, who I actually met at the Folklife Festival. They were a generation older but they welcomed me.
“I also was part of an electric blues band that was pretty rough. We were trying to play some Chicago style blues. I was schooled in the harmonica for a long time before I got turned on to the classic Chicago harp players like Little Walter, Junior Wells, and Sonny Boy Williamson. They were amazing, and I love that music. But I never really listened to those records with the harp in my mouth trying to copy them. I just listened, and eventually it got under my skin. Some of those influences came out as I was learning. But I never really tried to learn their stuff note for note.”
When he was in elementary school in D.C., Wiggins felt at home despite the fact that the school system was segregated along color lines.
“It was like family. The principals and teachers wanted us kids to thrive and excel. They looked out for us. Our parents stayed in close contact with the teachers and administrators. I had a hard time in elementary school, after my father passed on when I was seven years old. That hit me hard. I basically flunked first grade trying to deal with that loss. I remember my teacher sending a letter home to my Mom. I thought I was in trouble, so I didn’t give to her. After a few days, the teacher called my Mom to find out if she had received the letter, which she hadn’t because I still had it stashed away.
“When we returned to Virginia some years later after living overseas, I was attending a school that was majority white, and most of the families were well-to-do. I went from an environment where people wanted you to excel to one where they didn’t want you there at all. Most of the black kids were direct descendants of George Washington’s slaves, and lived in a black community called Gum Springs. Then there were a few of us black kids that were military brats.
“The teachers for the most part did not have high expectations for those kids. After lunch, they all got on a bus to go to vocational school. I was in junior high, but my older brother and two sisters were in high school. I will never forget that the school counselor called and asked my Mom to come in to talk with her. At the meeting, the counselor said that all three of my siblings had signed up for college preparatory classes. My mother asked what was the problem with that. The counselor replied, and I am quoting here, “Most of our colored students are not college material”. Needless to say, Mom tore her a new one, and then went to the principal to so the same. She got it all straightened out. But that was the environment that we fell into.
“In high school, I had a history teacher who was still trying to win the Civil War. I wasn’t used to that attitude before then. I guess my parents in a lot ways tried to shelter and protect us from those kinds of things, so that we didn’t feel like there was anything we couldn’t accomplish growing up. Until we went to Germany, we didn’t come in contact with too many white people. Billie Holiday had a thing about border states. She said that if you were in the deep South, you know how things stood. But the border states were still trying to prove they were southern. I found that to be true. When we moved in, those statues of black lawn jockeys were all over the place. It was hard to get used to seeing those.”
Beginning in 1976, Wiggins started playing gigs with John Cephas. As he stated in his book Sweet Bitter Blues, “My ears are always wide open, and I deliberately listen for poetry in what people say. That poetry happened when I played with John Cephas”.
“I had been playing with Flora Molton, who was a street singer, gospel singer, and sanctified minister. John was playing in the band backing a local piano player, Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis, who was also from Titusville, AL. He actually knew my father. My mother came to D.C. for some of the events for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. I was playing with Big Chief at one of the events. My mother came in, saw Big Chief, and asked what he was doing there. That’s how I found out that they all knew each other.
“What attracted me to John was that he full of music, it was part of his life, just like he grew his own vegetables. John Cephas the carpenter and John Cephas the farmer weren’t any different than John Cephas the singer and guitar player. People of his generation wanted to have music in the house, so they made it themselves. John had one of the most beautiful singing voices I had ever heard plus he played dance music even though a lot of the songs were about hard times. It all somehow seemed joyful to me, and more importantly, celebratory. There was an understanding that celebration is necessary in the midst of those hard times.”
Ellis was a barrellhouse blues piano player with a deep, rich singing voice. His piano style was influenced by Walter Davis, a piano player with a unique style of chord harmonies. Cephas meet Ellis at a house party where Ellis was playing.
“At the party, one of John’s girlfriends introduced them. She commented that he used to play the guitar. John had been playing around at house parties until a woman broke his heart, or they had a fight. He left her house, leaving his guitar there. He never went back to get it, so it stayed there. When he met Big Chief, John mentioned that there was a woman that didn’t live to far from the house party, where he had left a guitar. So he went and got the guitar. He jammed with Chief, who then invited John to join his band. I met them at the Smithsonian Festival and later joined the band.
“Even though I was in high school, Big Chief would give me a drink once in awhile. He had a liquor store, and he usually had some moonshine around. He once put some of that in a cap and put a match to it, telling me that if the moonshine burns with a nice blue flame, you know that it is pure and safe to drink. But once he met my Mom and realized he knew my people, he said he wouldn’t be doing that any more!
“People like Chief and John had an edge, a dangerous side to them, like a lot of people that grew up being black and living in the deep South. But to me, they were so down-to-earth, open-hearted, and generous. They were glad to see a young person like me so interested in the music that they loved. They were happy that the music would carry on.”
Wiggins thinks that some writers or musicologists in the early 1970s came up with the term Piedmont style blues. He is sure the musicians playing the music up to that point weren’t concerned with categories.
“In the Piedmont style of guitar playing, you are using your thumb to pick out an alternating bass line on the bottom string, then picking out a melody line or syncopated rhythm on the treble strings at the same time. It was developed in the area from Maryland down to the northern part of Georgia, which is known as the Piedmont region. John’s family had acquired a bunch of land in that “40 acres and a mule” deal. Several lots were in Bowling Green, Virginia. John used his carpenter skills to build a house for his mother and one for himself. So he came up in the Piedmont region.
“It is intricate music with a lot going on, between the finger-picking on the treble strings and the thumb going real strong on the bass, beating out the rhythm. People these days don’t think of it as dance music, but it has a very powerful rhythm. As a harmonica player, because there was so much going on, I had to be careful not to overcrowd what the guitar was doing. As I said, John had a beautiful voice, but he was not a shouter, so I also had to be careful not to overpower his voice.
“So I often would just play the back beat, using the harmonica as percussion. But John would give me plenty of room to solo. In the course of a song, we’d do a couple verses of instrumental, then I would back off and let the guitar shine, then jump out and show off myself for several verses. All of the people I wound up playing with over the years, from Flora, to Chief and John, and some stuff with Archie Edwards, they were not easy to accompany, so it taught me how to be a good listener.
“Since John passed away, it has been hard to find people that have that great sense of rhythm. He learned to play guitar at house parties, as did Archie Edwards and John Jackson. They all learned in the environment of people dancing, partying, and celebrating. They understood that they were there to provide the rhythm to get people off their butts and dancing. That is missing in a lot of players today. Students of Rev. Gary Davis or Mississippi John Hurt’s playing have almost a classical approach to the music. They are doing a lot of impressive things with their fingers, but the rhythm is really, really weak. You don’t feel motivated to dance. When John played it was hard to sit still.
“That has been a pet project of mine over the years, to reconnect the dancers and dance music. Only recently have I started having pretty good success with that, mostly due to two excellent dancers who have come into my life. One is a brilliant tap dancer while the other is a hip hop dancer with a strong awareness of the roots and connections going back to the buck dance tradition.”
Wiggins is currently involved in two combos. The first is called the Chesapeake Sheiks, with inspiration coming from bands like Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, the Mississippi Sheiks, and Cats & the Fiddle, plus some Wiggins originals. The group plays a mix of string band and swing music. Instead of a drummer, the tap dancer, Baakari Wilder, provides the percussion. The other combo is Houseparty, featuring a fine Piedmont guitarist from Virginia, Rick Franklin, and the same violin player from the Sheiks, Marcus Moore, plus Junious Brickhouse, the hip hop/buck dancer. He often brings a gang of young dancers the shows and workshops, so whenever there is a beat going on, there is dancing going on.”
Other members of the Chesapeake Sheiks include Matt Kelley on acoustic guitar, Ian Walters on acoustic piano, and Steve Wolf an acoustic bass. At the time the band formed, all of the members lived in Maryland, so they stole the name from the Mississippi Sheiks. Wiggins has also done a lot of virtual shows through his Facebook page.. He remembers doing three live performances in the last year and a half with the Sheiks, while Houseparty hasn’t done anything since the shutdown.
“I got dragged into this technology kicking and screaming. On my birthday last year, I decided to do a solo live-stream. A lot of people tuned in, so it was lucrative. But I was surprised at how satisfying it was. I was sitting on the couch in my living room, so it felt kind of intimate. I was relaxed, telling stories and playing harp. So I was doing one a month. It is nothing like a live show but it has been satisfying for what was possible given the times.”
In 2017, Wiggins was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship, awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts, perhaps the highest form of recognition for people involved in traditional art forms in our country. The award had extra meaning for the harmonica master.
“In 1989, John received that award. A lot of people assumed that it was for both of us. But that one was just for John. To be recognized on my own was a huge milestone, especially for that particular award. Usually awards are based on how many records you sell, and this or that. I wasn’t doing anything different or anything deliberate to earn that award. I was just doing what I do and love. They decided to recognize it. That affirmation gave me a certain amount of confidence.”
Wiggins is excited about the future of the music these days. He has seen a shift in attitudes about blues in younger generations, even regarding some instruments that hark back to an era many would just as soon forget.
“For awhile there, John and I would play festivals where we would be hanging out with 65 year old geezers. Now there is a young, energetic tribe of African-American musicians, and white musicians, that are playing acoustic guitars, banjos, and harmonicas. Those instruments have had a stigma for a long time for African-Americans, but now people are embracing that connection to our culture. I think we have reached a point in history where, rather than being ashamed of the past, let’s embrace it and be proud of it.”
There is one other aspect of his artistry that has come to the fore to a greater extent in recent years.
“I have been making songs since well before I hooked up with John. Very few of my songs, maybe half a dozen, made it onto the Cephas & Wiggins set list. I am proud that I am now able to put my songs out there, and people seem to like them, want to hear them. I try to write songs that are useful, whether about an issue, or to celebrate and uplift people. My solo live streams have been a good way to get those songs out there. That has been very rewarding.”
Visit Phil’s website at: https://www.philwiggins.com/