March 27, 2009
Born in 1930, John Cephas grew up with the blues. At age 9, his aunt sat him down and taught him how to play the guitar. And before Cephas was a teenager, he had his own guitar, which he used to entertain weekend guests at his family’s home in the Foggy Bottom area of Washington, D.C. The tradition that Cephas settled on in adulthood was the Piedmont blues, a style of “house party” music with alternating thumb-and-finger picking that originated in the foothills of the Appalachians running from Richmond, Virginia, to Atlanta, Georgia.
To honor the musician, who died March 4 at age 78, a memorial gathering will take place from 1-3 p.m. in the Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History on Sunday, March 29. Attendees will share remembrances and participate in a musical tribute.
One of the last bluesmen practicing the Piedmont style, Cephas became a familiar face at folk music festivals in the 1960s. While at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1976, he met harmonica player Phil Wiggins. The two would eventually form the duo Cephas & Wiggins. (Smithsonian Folkways released a collection of their music, “Richmond Blues” in 2008.)
Beginning in the 1980s, the duo toured through Europe, Africa, and South and North America. Of the experience, Cephas said, “I guess you could say we’ve been all over the world playing. I’ll go anywhere to play the blues and to teach people about Piedmont blues.”
In June 2007, Smithsonian reporter David Zax asked Cephas what the blues meant to him. Cephas responded, “It’s stories of life. All you got to do is listen to the lyrics, and you’ll see that they are related to some true-to-life experience.”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.