Phil Wiggins and Frank Matheis – Sweet Bitter Blues: Washington, DC’s Homemade Blues | Book Review

Phil Wiggins and Frank Matheis – Sweet Bitter Blues: Washington, DC’s Homemade Blues

University Press of Mississippi

270 pages Paperback edition

Electric blues in its many forms dominates the radio and sales charts, the bookings for festivals, and space in various blues publications. Acoustic blues artists struggle for recognition within the genre, despite the roots of the music springing from artists singing while playing unamplified guitars and harmonicas. At times it seems like the acoustic tradition is slowly fading away as that approach becomes an acquired taste for fans clamoring for screaming guitars and pounding boogie beats.

In this new volume, the award-winning harmonica ace Phil Wiggins offers an in-depth look at the history of the under-appreciated Washington D.C. acoustic blues scene. Starting in his high school years, Wiggins was mentored by local artists who played on street corners as well as performing at the Annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Once he teamed up with guitarist John Cephas, the duo quickly received acclaim as Cephas & Wiggins, recording for labels like Flying Fish and Alligator Records while touring internationally. As Wiggins relates, that success was nurtured by the opportunities to play and learn in the midst of a thriving cadre of like-minded artists. He gets help telling his story from Frank Matheis, a contributing writer for Living Blue Magazine and a number of other blues publications as well as being the publisher of the website:

The book is divide into two main sections. The first deals with Wiggins life story. Matheis sets the stage with an introductory section that establishes the influences of re-discovered legends like Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, and Skip James, all of whom for a time resided in the D.C. Area during the 60’s decade, inspiring many musicians. Cotten benefited from a connection to the Seeger family, which lead to royalty payments for several of her original songs once they were recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary at the height of their popularity.

The following chapter deals with the first stages of Wiggins’ life, including the passing of his father, and the troubles with his step-father, who was an officer in the military. After a four year stint on assignment in Germany, the family moved to Northern Virginia. Now in high school, Wiggins couldn’t afford to buy a saxophone – the school did not supply instruments – and his parents did not offer to help him out. Using money he saved from his paper route, Wiggins purchased a more affordable harmonica, which was easy to transport as well. As his skills improved, he was able to sit in with people like Flora Molton, a blind street busker how performed sacred songs on a daily basis. Wiggins also learn a great deal from Ed Morris, who often backed Molten on guitar.

Eventually, Wiggins is invited to join the band of Big Chief Ellis and the Barrelhouse Rockers. The guitar player was John Cephas, the start of a relationship that would span close to thirty years. That artistic partnership is detailed in the next chapter, the true heart of the book. Wiggins proves to be an adept storyteller, sharing the duo’s many triumphs along with the often complicated reality of dealing with a man twenty-four years older and set in his ways. But their partnership created beautiful music that quickly elevated them to the top rank of acoustic blues artists of their era. The author also introduces other key contributors to the local scene, like Archie Edwards and John Jackson.

The next chapter of the first section, “Carrying On The Legacy On My Own,” details the struggles that Wiggins had to deal with after Cephas passed away in 2009. It was tough going trying to find opportunities to play, let alone earn a living. The shadow of the Cephas & Wiggins legacy proved at times to be more of a hindrance than a help. Persistence and the support of the local scene help him to finally regain his footing in new creative outlets. He finishes the section off with a short chapter of advice for fellow harmonica players that empathizes tone and taste over other facets of the instrument.

Matheis takes over in the second section, entitled “The DC Acoustic Blues Scene,” offering short chapters on the key players including Molton, Ellis, guitarist Jackson, Esther Mae “Mother” Scott, and Eleanor Ellis, another fine guitar player. There several pages covering the lasting impact of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Readers learn more about John Cephas from an interview by Dr. Barry Lee Pearson that originally ran in Living Blues Magazine. There are two chapters on Archie Edwards, the patron saint of the DC scene. The first covers his musical accomplishments while the second highlights the key role his barbershop had in nurturing the local players. Edwards would close the shop every Saturday afternoon at 1 pm, turning the hair parlor into a room for musicians to jam, with everyone welcome.

The book features twenty-plus pages of B&W photographs of Cephas & Wiggins and the other local players plus a two page Discography listing recordings by all of the relevant artists.

Wiggins and Matheis are to be commended for this fine volume on an important musical community that continues to extend and honor the blues traditions of the Piedmont region. His unflinching candor mixed with a palpable sense of joy at where life has taken him makes Wiggins’ recollections a joy to read.

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