- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

When I learned last week that John Cephas — the seminal Piedmont Blues guitarist, longtime musical collaborator of Phil Wiggins and treasured Washington-area musician — had died, I immediately remembered the first time I heard his beautiful and deeply felt music.

It was many years ago, while listening to the long-running public-radio program “Traditions,” hosted by folk, acoustic and roots music booster Mary Cliff, a great champion of local music. Along with compiling a weekly master calendar of who would be playing where, Mary did an amazing job of playing everything she could get her hands on when it came to local offerings. For those too young to remember, this was in the days when everything was not readily available at the touch of a computer key — you had to really do some legwork to find the actual vinyl. Cephas and Wiggins were consummate players, and John’s baritone voice was a gorgeous third instrument, floating above his masterful finger picking and Phil’s harmonica.

An old friend from back then recently recalled a night at the Birchmere down in Alexandria when Doc Watson was playing. She said that Doc knew that John Cephas was in the house, and he magically took the audience to church for a session of call and response. Doc sang out to John Cephas about a song he was about to play, and John answered from his seat in the audience. This went on for a little while to everyone’s delight. Imagine if you will, two of the greatest practitioners of the Piedmont Blues finger-picking style having a conversation about music while you get to listen in.


As a player, John was a master of the alternating thumb-bass style, allowing the listener to hear the influence of ragtime piano and country blues in the pattern — the forefingers provided the melody. This highly complex and melodic style of playing is also known as East Coast Piedmont Blues, referring to the part of the country where so many of the great players have come from. The mid-Atlantic and the Southeast were areas where both black and white musical influences found their way into the music, as opposed to the more rural, Southern, predominantly black Delta Blues style.


As is immediately apparent from the loving and appreciative tributes to John Cephas on his MySpace page, this was someone that you know changed people’s lives with his art. Not only was he a world-class touring musician, respected recording artist and National Heritage Fellowship Award winner, he was also a beloved teacher who enthusiastically shared his talent in an effort to keep his style of music alive and vital.

“Bowling Green” John Cephas (he was raised in Bowling Green, Va.) now joins an extraordinary group of musicians who have been name-checked by scholars and who directly influenced players for decades, among them Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Arthur Blake (Blind Blake), D.C.’s own Archie Edwards and the late, great John Jackson.

To quote one of the many tributes to John Cephas: Thank you for touching our lives and our souls.

For more information on Mary Chapin Carpenter, check out these links:

http://www.marychapincarpenter.com/

http://rounder.com/