Friday, March 06, 2009

John Cephas I Will Miss You

Roberta! where are you? Can’t you hear me call?
I’m a thousand miles away from home with my back up against the wall…

First time I heard John Cephas play the guitar was about five or six years ago at the annual DC Blues Fest at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in DC.

A nice act, with a woman in the lead, came on before them. The woman, whoever it was, and her band did well, but then these two guys got on stage, one with the guitar, and the other in a wide-brimmed hat, pulled low over his face, a harmonica to his lips.

They played in a different league. John Cephas on acoustic guitar, Phil Wiggins on the harp. It’s the Piedmont blues, a finger-picking style that plays the chord rather than the single string like you might hear in the Delta.

I turned to the sales table I happened to be near and bought their CD. Mr. Cephas died of pulmonary embolism, the Washington Post reported, March 4; he was 78.

As good as that concert was (I write “concert” but given the meltdown the kids were having, I could only stay for two or three songs), I was glad two years ago to catch Cephas and Wiggins at the Montgomery CollegeTakoma Park campus’ black box theatre. With first come, first serve seating, my wife and I found ourselves in the front row of a theatre that held maybe 100 people.

It wasn’t a concert as much as a conjuring. Something palpable grew from that stage, rose up between them, slunk out into audience. I could have stood up and walked over to them on whatever it was without touching ground. I don’t have words for the experience of hearing their harmonica and guitar that night, but every fiber of my body vibrated under their power. I have never felt so much like the music was in me as I did that night. Spellbinding.

He will be missed. Here’s a youtube clip:

Related stories…
  • Blues Singer and Guitarist Preserved Va. Traditions
  • RIP Piedmont Bluesman John Cephas (a WashPost tribute)

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  • Comments:
    Thanks Steve,
    John and Phil and several others who have also since passed on actually played in my neighbor's backyard following the old Northern Virginia Folk Festival that used to take place at TJ. I had just moved in and didn't know him at the time. I think the last time I saw John was at the Folklife Festival the year that that Youtube clip was recorded. What a powerful show that was. John was a great musician, and it felt like he belonged to us, since his roots were in Washington, D.C., and in Virginia.

    I miss him very much too; he will be fondly remembered.

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