Cephas and Wiggins – Richmond Blues (2008)

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NICK DERISO: Cephas and Wiggins, America’s best remaining champions of the easterly Piedmont blues tradition, somehow never really made it.

I mean, Robert Cray-type made it. Stevie Ray-type made it.

A shame.

Self-taught harp player Phil Wiggins, from Washington D.C., met John Cephas as the 1960s blues revival was in full swing. A terrific writer — “Roberta,” “Dog Days of August” and “Guitar Man” — Wiggins was anything but a throwback, however. His heart-felt, tone-perfect lyrics aim, even now, to bring the blues aesthetic into a modern vernacular.

He found in Cephas, of a different generation but also from the D.C. area, an unusually varied collaborator who had kept each foot firmly planted in the blues and gospel genres. Cephas plays the bass parts with his thumb, in the local juke-joint tradition, and uses one or two other fingers for the solos. Yet, he still performs religious material, harkening back to his childhood association with a group called the Capitol Harmonizers. (In keeping, you’ll find the great gospel tune “Great Change” on “Richmond Blues,” issued on July 29.)

Cephas had gotten into the blues after picking up a guitar his father had bought, but never mastered. A cousin later taught Cephas to play. His grandfather, meanwhile, would take him on day trips down to the country side of Virginia, where the youngster was introduced to “corn liquor, country parties, and all those good times,” Cephas remembers. “Blues drew me like a magnet; it was part of me, part of my heritage, part of my soul.”

The duo first recorded together in 1981, then began an extensive touring schedule that included the American Folk Blues Festival Tour over the following years, and the ’86 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Several major awards followed, including Blues Foundation recognition as best traditional artist and the W.C. Handy award for entertainer of the year.

“Richmond Blues,” issued on Smithsonian Folkways — it’s part of the African American Legacy Recordings series so-produced by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — continues their steadfast goal to highlight the Piedmont form’s often-forgotten influence, which includes Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

“Most people know about rock and roll, and Chicago blues,” Cephas says, “but not too many have heard Piedmont players. … So, I guess it’s up to us to expose them to our type of music.”

It’s a testament to their passion for this regional delight, based in the foothills of the Appalachians, beginning in Atlanta and running north into Virginia. There’s more of a ragtime, or string-band, influence (see “Pigmeat Crave”) in this music — rarely recorded in the early part of the last century, but a staple of local breakdowns — than in the more widely recognized blues sides with a Deep South connection.

A highpoint example on “Richmond Blues” is the hilarious “Black Rat Swing,” a hip dance tune based on an early 1940s recording by Little Son Joe. “Crow Jane” is a well-known, eight-bar regional Piedmont standard dating back to the early 1930s. “John Henry” may be the country’s best-known African-American ballad.

Over time, however, the area’s loosely constructed get togethers turned away from indigenous sounds — and, to be honest, even Cephas and Wiggins can’t help but capitulate to the cresting sea change that engulfed black music: “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby” was popularly done by the Chicago-based Big Bill Broonzy, on Bluebird in 1935. Wiggins’ “Dog Days of August” (embedded below) and the traditional “Step It Up and Go” (done a million times, in a million ways, but notably by Tommy McClennan in 1939) have the gritty feel of the Delta, as well.

(Interestingly, banjos, accordions and violins continue to dominate music from the Creole culture of southern Louisiana. I was reminded of that when Cephas and Wiggins update Fats Domino’s “Going to the River,” made for Imperial in 1952, on this new release.)

At the same time, and this plays out on “Richmond Blues,” Cephas and Wiggins never give in to nostalgia. “Mamie” is a dark, and modern-feeling rumination on love lost. There is an impressive update on “Key to the Highway.”

They are, in the end, the best of both worlds: A couple of guys with an old-time sound but a just-in-time heartiness.

 

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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