“Bowling Green” John Cephas was born in Washington, D.C. in 1930 into a deeply religious family. He takes his nickname from Bowling Green, Virginia, where he was raised. His first taste of music was gospel, but blues soon became his calling. His grandfather taught him the folklore of eastern Virginia, where his ancestors had toiled as slaves, and Cephas learned about blues from a guitar-playing aunt. But it was his cousin, David Taleofero, who taught him much of what he plays—the alternating thumb-and-finger picking style that characterizes Piedmont blues.
After learning to play the alternating thumb and fingerpicking style that defines Piedmont blues, John began emulating the records he heard. By the age of nine, John was playing for weekend gatherings with family and friends. Music from the ragtime era and early Piedmont artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red were all influences on Cephas.
As a young man, John joined the Capitol Harmonizers and toured on the gospel circuit. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to the United States and went through a variety of jobs that included professional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman. By the 1960s, Cephas was starting to make a living from his music and, since forming a duo with Wiggins in 1977, John has performed all over the world, serving as an ambassador of this singular American art form.
Among his many endeavors, John serves on the Executive Committe of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and has testified before congressional committees. He is also a founder of the Washington, D.C. Blues Society. “More than anything else,” says John, “I would like to see a revival of country blues by more young people… more people going to concerts, learning to play the music. That’s why I stay in the field of traditional music. I don’t want it to die.”
Cephas received the coveted National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989. These fellowships recognize those who preserve cultural legacies in music, dance and crafts.
Phil Wiggins was born in Washington, D.C. in 1954 and spent his childhood summers at his grandmother’s home in Alabama, where he listened to old-time hymns sung in church in the traditional call-and-response style. Phil was attracted to the blues harp as a young man and began his musical career with some of Washington’s leading blues artists, including Archie Edwards and John Jackson, and attributes his style to his years spent accompanying locally noted slide guitarist and gospel singer Flora Molton.
Wiggins' harmonica sound developed from listening to piano and horn players, as well as the music of Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells. Phil also apprenticed with Mother Scott (a contemporary of Bessie Smith). Besides being a renowned harmonica player, Wiggins is also a gifted songwriter and singer whose material has helped to define the duo’s sound.
As a harmonica-guitar duo, Cephas & Wiggins are uniquely able to exemplify the synthesis of African and European elements which co-exist in the blues. Much of the melody and imagery is Western, of course. However, the call-and-response interplay between the harmonica and guitar, the complimentary rhythms, and the microtonal slurs generated by “stretched” guitar strings and “bent” harmonica notes are all quintessentially African.