“One thing that I’ve been feeling lately is that the music (I play) is presented as celebration more than a concert or entertainment,” says harmonica player Phil Wiggins. “Everybody who is present takes part in it. Everyone that’s in the room is part of it, and they’re enjoying it, but they’re also experiencing it and carrying it on and learning from it.”
Phil Wiggins for 30 years partnered with John Cephas in a duo that Alligator CEO Bruce Iglauer called “the greatest purveyors of Piedmont blues” referring to Wiggins’ style as “rollercoaster harmonica.” The liner notes to Cephas and Wiggins’ 1994 Sweet Bitter Blues album describe the genre as “under-recorded and under-researched” and “shortchanged by scholars, critics, record producers and the general public.”
The Piedmont style is lilting and sweeter than Delta blues some say because of the better treatment of slaves prior to the Civil War on the more productive farms with richer soil in the Piedmont plateau region including Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky vs. the more Spartan conditions in Mississippi and Arkansas.
The alternating thumb and fingerpicking guitar style incorporating string band and ragtime influences made artists like The Rev. Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and Josh White popular in the folk music community of the late ’50s and early ’60s, but the style was eclipsed by the late ’60s when Delta blues was electrified into Chicago blues by artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker and picked up by rock guitarists of the British Invasion.
In the face of declining interest from young blues fans who were plugging in, Cephas and Wiggins between 1972 until Cephas’ death in 2009 grew to become the most prominent exponents of the Piedmont style. Cephas played guitar and sang both originals and folk/blues standards like “John Henry” and “Key to The Highway,” while Wiggins played harmonica in their telepathic musical collaboration. Both came out of Washington D.C. Cephas was 30 years Wiggins’ senior, and when they started performing together, Wiggins was a self-described “joker in raggedy jeans and a huge Afro.”
Cephas had grown up in a segregated neighborhood in D.C. and held day jobs as a carpenter and Atlantic fisherman while Wiggins was an upper middle class stepson of an Army officer who moved his family from Washington D.C. to Germany for four years. Phil Wiggins returned from overseas as a teenager to live in Gum Springs, a Virginia suburb where the only African American kids in his school were descendants of George Washington’s slaves.
“I clashed with living in the suburbs,” says Wiggins, “especially living in Northern Virginia. I always think of what Billie Holiday talked about. She always talked about border towns as opposed to the deep south. She said something to the effect that in the border towns the people are really trying hard to prove that they are in the south. So, it was harder. To this day I don’t like northern Virginia. That was the clash for me (as opposed to Washington D.C.) I mean I was always being harassed by the cops, being – what do you call it – marginalized in school. That whole thing to me was like a struggle.
“The principal or the counselor I guess it was said to my mother, ‘Your daughter and your son have signed up for college preparatory classes,’ and my mother said, ‘Yeah, and the problem with that is?’ The direct quote from that woman was, ‘Most of our colored students are not college material.’
“Most of the black kids after lunch were bussed to vocational school. I don’t know what that was like. I often now think that maybe it would have been a good idea for me to have gotten on that bus and actually learned a skill because it’s kind of been a struggle being a musician and not really having any other marketable skills.”
Wiggins’ earliest musical influence was the church. In Washington D.C. he attended an AME African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Those folks don’t have good music,” says Wiggins flatly. “It was very much like a classical approach to music rather than what I consider to be more of a gospel. I think of “Ave Maria” and someone standing up in the pulpit with their hands clasped together in front of her and singing some opera. That’s what I think of when I think of the AME Church.”
But his grandmother’s Liberty Baptist Church in Titusville, Alabama, was completely different. “Those people just put their heart and their soul and their foot in it. It was powerful, powerful music. On Sunday, the church rocked, but I think the thing that influenced me the most is the prayer meetings that would be on a Wednesday or Thursday night, and it would just be the elderly women of the church that would get together and sing prayers and praises (a cappella) which was kind of call and response kind of thing.
“To me it had a much stronger African influence to it and definitely what I consider a blues feel to it. It was just like pure emotion and at the same time it seems like when people are praising God, whatever that means to them, the act itself gets driven to the highest types because they’re trying to connect with the highest being in my grandmother’s church. There was so much power. I mean, for me that captured my imagination. And I wasn’t inside the same room. I was waiting outside the church for my grandmother to come out and so I was captivated by that.”
Wiggins’ first specific mentor was a blind sanctified minister Flora Molton whom he met when he was 17. “She considered her ministry to be on the streets of Washington D.C. when she played her music on the corner right in front of Woodward Lathrop Department Store. When she first set up on that corner, the police would harass her, and they would make her go away, and she said she would go home and pray over it, and then come back the next day. Her faith gave her the strength to just keep doing what she’s doing.
“She wasn’t proselytizing. She was singing songs. She sang two types of songs, gospel songs and what she called truth songs. She was a great songwriter, and she wrote songs that gave people advice on how to navigate through life. She called those truth songs. I mean they were really great songs, and that’s what she did. She sang those songs, but then people would stop and talk to her and tell her the troubles they were going through or tell her about their families and stuff, she would have conversations with people. She had a cup on the end of her guitar (for donations).
“I never went to Flora’s church, but it was funny because we had been playing together for a little while, and these people from the Public Television channel in Washington were doing a documentary about Flora. So, they went with us. Flora went to preach at a sanctified church in Baltimore, and they went with her to film this whole thing.
“From the minute you walked in the door, there was this kind of beat up rhythm section, a guy playing guitar, somebody playing the drums. They basically were playing from the minute we walked in, and they never stopped playing, and the minister of the church introduced Flora, and Flora preached a sermon and then the woman who was the minister of the church preached a sermon, and that band had just kept going the whole time. They would hit some rim shots or hit an accent when one of the speakers made a particular point. They just supported the whole thing, but they never stopped playing.
“Flora was pretty powerful. At the end they were packing up and were looking for the camera man, he was busy joining the church. He’d gotten entranced by that woman’s sermons, and he was ready to join that church.”
The camera man wasn’t African American. To say this was an anomaly is an understatement. “Two of the most segregated institutions that still exist in America is churches and barber shops” says Wiggins flatly.
Wiggins met John Cephas through Flora when he was 22 accompanying Flora at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. When Cephas and Wiggins got together, it started out like a father-son relationship.
“You know when I met John he was playing in a trio with Chief Ellis and bass player James Bellamy. John lived in D.C. and worked at the National Guard Armory as a carpenter and all, but also he built himself a house in Virginia down between Richmond and Fredericksburg in a place called Bowling Green, Virginia. It was kind of a rural area, and that was where his heart was. He built his own house with his own two hands down there, and he had his garden. He actually built his mother and father a house next to his. They owned a good bit of land down there that they got in that 40 acres and a mule deal (after the Civil War.)
“For some reason I was drawn to that kind of rural life. I’d been a city person and a suburb person and even my grandmother’s neighborhood in Titusville I felt was country because people had goats and chickens in their back yard, but really, Titusville was just kind of a neighborhood on the outskirts of Birmingham. It wasn’t really that rural. But I was kind of drawn to that, you know.
“One of the first times I went to John’s house down in Bowling Green, we had made arrangements to meet at the Chinese restaurant in D.C. and have dinner and then go on down from there. John pulls up in this pickup truck. The back of it is full of elephant s***. I’m like, ‘John, what are you doing?’ He worked at the National Guard Armory, and the circus would come there to the Armory. He made a deal with the elephant guy that he would clean up the elephant s*** if he would let him have it, and he loaded it up, put it in the back of the truck, took it home to Bowling Green and put it in his garden.”
In an interview Wiggins once described the songs he created with Cephas as “urban acoustic music,” a term that hardly would have fit the sounds of their mentors. Wiggins admits he came up with that description as a defense against folklorists and ethnomusicologists who treated Cephas as “this country guy.”
“Born in Washington D.C., he (Cephas) was born in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood, and he grew up there, but his family had that land down in Virginia, and they would go there like weekends or whatever, and they would spend time there, but I mean basically John in terms of born and raised was not that different from me.
“It was really important for him to own a piece of land, just to get out of the city. By the time we started playing together, John would always talk about when he was growing up and living in a segregated society. They would have house parties, and people stayed pretty much in their own community. They didn’t venture out much from their own community because in a lot of ways it wasn’t really safe. Especially in the south and in the deep south, it wasn’t really that safe to venture out of your own neighborhoods, so you made your fun in your own community, and that’s what he grew up with.”
Wiggins is way too enmeshed in his own life to see his career as a standard bearer of the Piedmont genre. He has called the music he played with Cephas “urban acoustic music.” He explains, “Music wasn’t like a performance type thing for John. It was like a way of life, and I think that gave it a strength and a beauty that just transcended the categories.”
Cephas’ death in 2009 shattered Phil Wiggins’ world. They’d played together for 30 years, toured the world and became so close that they became one musically. He struggles now to describe in complete sentences how devastating the loss is to him. “In my life so many foundational things are just all of a sudden gone. All these tunes we played together, and I loved to play over the years now I hardly ever play any of them. To this day I’m still dealing with the loss of it.
“I mean I can talk about it in practical ways just at a certain point feeling like although we had so much progress together and in the recent years where it felt like it was pretty much an even partnership. Even though my name came after John’s name, it was definitely as much a part of Cephas and Wiggins as the Cephas part was. At a certain point it really hit me financially and consciously that this is like almost starting over rebuilding a name for myself.”
“When John first passed there was a bunch of people we still had contracts with that were willing to honor those contracts with other partners,” explains Wiggins. “During that time I did quite a few gigs with Cory Harris. I did some with my local friend here, Rick Franklyn, but those petered out after a while.
“Then it really started hitting me financially and all. It was pretty tight, and at the same time I felt like it opened up doors to doing a lot of different things that I’d been interested in in the past and kind of turned down or shied away from because I was committed to playing with John who in a way was kind of a possessive partner.
“He didn’t really like hearing about me doing stuff with other people, with other musicians and basically between being curious and wanting to do a lot of different things and also wanting to have dates on the calendar in terms of having money coming in, I was just saying yes to whoever rang my phone, and it got me into a lot of crazy things, and lots of things that really stretched me that were fun and also things that I realized, ok, this is not really me.”
Two years ago, Wiggins recorded Owing The Devil A Day’s Work with Dom Turner, a friend from Australia recording as Wiggins and Turner. He started playing with Nat Reise, a musician from West Virginia two years before Cephas’ death when his longtime partner was advised not to play that much. “We did Delta blues, some swing standards, some pop songs and some torch songs. He passed away a couple of months after John.”
“Nat came up in that era of going around and playing the coal camps that at that time were kind of segregated. There was the black camp, and then there was the Polish camp, and there was the Italian camp, and then there was the camp they called the natives which was kind of the Appalachian hillbillies and he would go from camp to camp playing.”
He also has done gigs with Martin, Bogan and Armstrong in that period performing a repertoire of everything from Duke Ellington and Louie Jordan to Hawaiian songs. Howard Armstrong speaks five languages and does songs in Italian.
“I’m collaborating on a book about the acoustic blues scene in Washington D.C. from right around 1975 to basically the present with a good friend of mine, Frank Matheis.” It’s titled Sweet Bitter Blues named after the title cut of Cephas and Wiggins’ 1994 CD on Evidence Records mentioned at the beginning of this article.
From January 29th through February 5, Wiggins is performing in Great Britain with Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons who took first place in the 2016 Blues Foundation International Blues Challenge. They describe their music as a “swirling musical whirlpool of pre-war American vintage music.”
“Just about every note of music I’ve ever played in my life has been dance music,” concludes Wiggins,” and if you look at all this music that I love, and that I play, that’s the thing that ties the Piedmont, The Mississippi Sheiks, and Martin, Bogan and Armstrong all together. These are people that I “steal” from and it’s all been dance music. If we can dance together, we can live together.”
Visit Phil’s website at: www.philwiggins.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.