Piedmont blues guitarist John Cephas died yesterday. He was a gentle man, a wonderful musician, and a born educator. I saw him play many times and took a guitar class with him at the Augusta Heritage Festival in 2003.
Piedmont blues is a distinct genre very different from the Delta blues of Robert Johnson, Son House and other Mississippi musicians, and their many descendants and imitators. Piedmont blues is more melodic, usually fingerpicked, and often sounds like ragtime. If you’ve heard Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train” (also performed by Taj Mahal), or the music of people like Blind Blake, the Rev. Gary Davis, John Jackson, Blind Boy Fuller, or Brownie McGhee or modern day players like Ernie Hawkins, that’s Piedmont blues.
Cephas and his musical partner, Phil Wiggins, probably the best living blues harmonica player, started playing together sometime in the late 1970s. I first heard them at a cigarette company-sponsored free show at the IBM building in midtown in 1990, the same weekend I met Willie Dixon. I own all of their albums, have seen them in concert better than a dozen times, most recently at an outdoor show in Madison Square Park, from which the above photo comes. (And I would not have known about that show if not for redstapler pointing out the sign after lunch one day with rosefox and others, so thanks to both of them, because Cephas and Wiggins didn’t come to NYC often enough.)
Their shows were not only spectacular musically. Cephas took every opportunity to talk about the culture and the history of the blues; he would often explain the difference between Piedmont and Delta blues as he tuned his guitar down to play a haunting tune by Skip James, in my opinion the greatest Delta blues musician. Cephas and Wiggins carried the lonely torch of honest acoustic blues for decades, and with Cephas being close to 30 years older than Wiggins, they crossed generations with each other as well as with their audiences.
Their easy camaraderie, snappy clothes and perfectly set straw hats, and virtuoso musicianship made every show a joy. I dragged many people to see them, most of whom had no idea who they were and knew little about the music. I don’t recall anyone being anything less than wildly enthusiastic.
All of their albums are in print and well worth buying. And there are a few musicians still playing this music well and honestly, particular Corey Harris and Guy Davis. You can hear a lot of the Piedmont in Keb Mo’s playing sometimes, in Taj Mahal’s. You hear them when anyone fingerpicks blues. But you’ll never hear them quite like John played them, and I will miss that, and his laugh, and the way he would shake his head when people tried to get too analytic or strict about playing music.
I guess I’m like so many other folks
I can’t stop now
I guess I am a hopeless case
I can’t put this guitar down
I was determined I was gonna play those blues
–“I Was Determined,” John Cephas, 2004