John Cephas (1930-2009) grew up in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC, during the 1930s and ’40s, during the era of Jim Crow racial segregation. He had a musical family, and his father was a Baptist minister. As a boy John sang as a duo with his brother and with a cappella quartets in the family church. (A cappella means singing unaccompanied without instruments).
John and his family often visited relatives around Bowling Green, Virginia. There his aunt, a noted guitar player, taught him Piedmont style guitar, which is acoustic, not electric. Listening to relatives and 78 rpm records by earlier Piedmont bluesmen provided further inspiration and instruction. He especially liked Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, and Blind Blake.
Here is how John described his childhood musical experiences, “I guess my main influence came from the environment I used to live in. When I grew up as a kid in Washington, DC, and Caroline County, VA, naturally I grew up in a segregated society. On weekends and times for celebrations in the black community, all the folk used to join themselves together and they used have house parties. They would bring their instruments and they would come and they would sing, play piano, fiddle, banjo, and have all this wonderful music. As a kid, I heard this music and when I grew up I couldn’t help but fall right into that same mold because this is what I heard and what they enjoyed and what I enjoyed.
“As far as any main influence, my Aunt Lillian Dudley was my main influence. She was one of the main people at house parties. She’s still alive and knows how much I learned from her. My grandfather, he used to be one of the main ones too. When I was growing up, 8 or 9 years old, my aunt had a guitar and when she was by herself I used to ask to play the guitar. She would let me pluck on the guitar and show me one chord here and one note there, like that. So she was probably my main influence along with all this music I heard in the community. Then I had a cousin down in Virginia and he was very good at playing guitar. During our early teens that’s all we used to do, Piedmont style.”
After serving for the U.S. Army in Korea in the 1950s, John returned to Washington, DC. “I started off doing construction work, the only thing available to me since I didn’t get an education. My parents weren’t able to send me to college. I didn’t finish the tenth grade, and the only thing available was non-skilled labor, and I did that until I learned how to do carpentry work as an apprentice with one of the black-owned construction companies. Then I later acquired a journeyman’s license as a carpenter after taking tests.”
Like many traditional musicians, John’s worked at a day job, but music was always a big part of his life. “All during that time I did play music at house parties, just music for enjoyment, not knowing it would one day be my main support in these later years, when the music I played all these years in my youth turned out to be worthy of concert stages around the world. I’m at that stage right now. I retired from being a carpenter in 1987. I don’t lift a hammer now if I don’t have to!”
When asked why he did not work as a musician when he was young, John said, “The type of music that I play wasn’t prominent enough that I could have launched a successful career because when I grew up the blues wasn’t considered concert hall-worthy. If I could have started earlier and figured that I could make a living at doing that, I would have been very happy to do that. But I grew up in a society where there was a lot of segregation, and things that black people did didn’t have a lot of merit. But as I grew older, then the blues got more exposure, and people who were interested in this music and saw its true worth brought it out, exposed it, opened up doors for artists to perform before many audiences. Today blues has a high position in the music world, and it’s because of so many people’s efforts at exposing the blues and so many musicians’ efforts at performing it.
In the mid-1970s, John met and began performing with bluesman Big Chief Ellis. In 1977, John joined other DC-area Piedmont musicians in a nonprofit organization called The Traveling Blues Workshop. Members included John Jackson, Elizabeth Cotton, Mother Scott, Flora Molton, and Archie Edwards. Around this time he met a younger musician, harmonica player Phil Wiggins, who became his musical partner.
Phil also grew up in Washington, DC, a few decades after John. As a boy, Phil was interested in African American street singers in DC and records by the Piedmont blues musician John Jackson. Phil also loved the old lined-out hymns he heard when he visited his grandparents’ church in Alabama. Although he was surrounded by popular music genres from rock and roll to rhythm and blues, traditional Piedmont music was what he loved.
After John retired from his job as carpentry foreman at the DC Armory, he and Phil began touring to play music around the country and the world. By 1981 they made their first LP record and continued to perform, tour, and record together as Cephas and Wiggins until John’s death in 2009.
Acclaimed as one of the best country blues duos in blues history, Cephas and Wiggins won two W.C. Handy Awards and were nominated for Grammy Awards. They played from the White House to Russia, and were musical ambassadors on U.S. Department of State tours.
Teaching music was also important to John, who was an instructor for many workshops and classes here and abroad. When John received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, his nominating letter read, “Abroad, he serves as a goodwill ambassador for American music, but at home, he is always learning as well as teaching. As he puts it, he never stops learning.”
Learn more about John Cephas by reading the transcript of his Local Learning Interview.