Shortly before John Jackson died in January, the legendary bluesman sat his nephew, Jeffrey Scott, down for a long talk.
“He said I’ve got to take the blues,” Mr. Scott remembers. “He said that it was just like being in a relay race. You have to take the blues and pass it on to someone else before you go.”
The blues will be much in evidence July 20, when the annual Herndon Blues Festival comes to Frying Pan Park in Herndon. Blues masters John Cephas and Phil Wiggins will be headlining an all-day celebration of the blues that is dedicated to John Jackson this year.
Mr. Scott, who used to back up his uncle, will be playing solo.
“It’s a little strange without Uncle Johnny sitting over there on my left saying, ‘You take one this time,’ says Mr. Scott, who remembers sitting on his uncle’s knee when he was 6 years old, believing he was playing the blues all by himself. “I’m doing it on my own now.”
But what better way to celebrate the life of the legendary bluesman than spending a day playing the music he loved best? Just about everyone performing, says festival founder Ray Kaminsky, has played with John Jackson, known him, or is related to him.
They include Pat Donohue, a National Fingerpicking Guitar champion and the house guitarist for “A Prairie Home Companion”; Mary Flower, a fingerpicker and lap steel guitarist; and Eric Freeman, who studied with John Jackson and who, bluesmen swear, sounds almost exactly like Blind Boy Fuller.
But don’t expect to hear a lot of electric guitars.
“We’re looking for all acoustic music, ” says Mr. Kaminsky, who will be performing his own acoustic set. “We want to get back to the roots of the art.”
Over the years, the blues have been twisted, tweaked and turned so much that they have lost nearly every shade of meaning. Contemporary music may be said to be blues-infused, but rarely is it the real thing unadulterated and unaltered by souped-up arrangements or interpreters who don’t really understand how it all began.
“The blues that I play I got honestly in the community where I lived,” says Mr. Cephas, a 1989 recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship Award, the highest honor the United States government gives to a traditional artist. “Every black community across the country had someone who played the blues. The music just came naturally.”
When Mr. Cephas talks about the blues he grew up with, he’s speaking primarily of blues of the Piedmont variety, the blues he grew up with as a child in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Northwest Washington and in the rural Virginia town where many of his relatives lived.
“People made their own style of entertainment,” he says. “Black people didn’t have a lot of money, and there were a lot of places we couldn’t go, but there was always a house party going on somewhere.”
In the late 1930s and 1940s, Foggy Bottom was home to a large black population. Many, like Mr. Cephas’ family, had made their way up along the railroad line from Virginia and the Carolinas.
They brought the blues with them, a distinctive Piedmont style of playing that differed from the Delta blues style that originated in Mississippi and was carried to Chicago along those railroad lines.
What makes each style distinctive is the execution. Piedmont blues depend heavily on the guitar and on a fingerpicking style of playing that has the guitarist alternating thumb and fingers, with the thumb picking out the bass line in what Mr. Cephas calls the “Williamsburg lope.”
Delta blues players, on the other hand, opt for a more single-string approach, playing with a flat pick and often a bottleneck or other slide to produce a distinctive wailing sound. That’s the sound that was carried up to Chicago by such bluesmen as Muddy Waters.
The fortyish Mr. Kaminsky, the program’s organizer and festival founder, has been playing the blues for about 15 years. While he may be a little too young to have enjoyed the house parties of Mr. Cephas’ youth, he still manages to keep his ear glued to recordings of the great bluesmen.
For his part, Mr. Cephas is making sure that he passes on his knowledge to the next generation.
That’s why, if Mr. Cephas isn’t on the road touring or teaching at one of the many blues workshops around the country, you’re likely to find him and Mr. Scott, or any one of the other up-and-coming blues musicians, jamming the night away at his house in Woodford, Va.
“After Uncle Johnny died, he is the one who is pushing me to get out at full force and play,” Mr. Scott says of Mr. Cephas. “That Mr. Cephas is a real fine man.”
“Rattlesnake Daddy,” Mr. Scott’s CD, includes blues standards such as “Freight Train” and gospel tunes including “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Copies will be sold Saturday. John Jackson would be proud.