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Blues Singer and Guitarist Preserved Va. Traditions

By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

John Cephas, 78, the blues singer and guitarist who preserved the folk blues traditions of southwestern Virginia's Piedmont region, died of a pulmonary embolism March 4 at his home in Woodford, Va., south of Fredericksburg.

Mr. Cephas was best known for his musical partnership with harmonica player Phil Wiggins. As Cephas and Wiggins, they performed worldwide in the 1980s, often on State Department-sponsored tours. His specialty was perpetuating a finger-picking guitar style that originated in the Carolinas and was popularized in the 1920s and 1930s by such blues performers as Brownie McGhee, Josh White and Blind Boy Fuller.

Mr. Cephas also co-founded the DC Blues Society in 1987, a nonprofit organization that holds the annual DC Blues Festival at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Washington.

John Dudley Cephas was born Dec. 4, 1930, in the District's Foggy Bottom neighborhood, but he spent his summers with his grandfather's family in Bowling Green, near Woodford.

His father, a Baptist minister, played guitar but gave it to Mr. Cephas when he proved more adept on the instrument. Mr. Cephas's grandfather, cousin and aunt were gifted musicians, and his father encouraged him to play at family gatherings -- although he imparted a mixed message.

"I came from a religious family -- my father was a minister -- and I remember him telling us not to go to those houses of ill repute where people were drinking and having a good time and playing blues," Mr. Cephas once told The Washington Post. "And on Fridays and Saturdays, they'd have a party at our house and the musicians would come in . . . carousing and having a good time. I always thought that hypocritical when the guitar struck up and you saw who'd be on the floor with Sister So-and-so or Deacon So-and-so."

Mr. Cephas sang with a local gospel quartet, the Capitol Harmonizers, before serving in the Army during the Korean War. He briefly worked as an Atlantic coastal fisherman in Delaware before becoming a master carpenter for the National Guard Armory. In his off hours, he played at house parties.

He performed professionally with blues pianist Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis in the 1970s. He met Wiggins during a jam session at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1976. The three started a band, the Barrelhouse Rockers, which lasted a year and a half before Ellis's death. Mr. Cephas and Wiggins continued as a duo.

German record company L&R approached Mr. Cephas to do an album in 1980 with Wiggins on several tracks. The next year, the duo was brought to Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival tour, with performances there.

They did a second album for L&R but didn't have any recordings available in the United States. In the 1980s, Mr. Cephas retired as the carpentry shop foreman at the armory. He would build his house in Woodford.

His carpentry skills led to a successful recording.

In 1987, Mr. Cephas approached Joe Wilson, the engineer on a recording Mr. Cephas had made with Ellis, about doing a record with Wiggins. The conversation occurred while Wilson was at work building his home in Takoma Park.

"He asked me if I'd make a record," Wilson said in an interview yesterday. "I told him I didn't have time. I was building a house. He looked at my work and told me, 'I'm a better carpenter than you. . . . I'll build the damn house, you make the damn record!' So I got a house, and he got a record."

The record, "Dog Days of August," won the prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Award as best traditional blues album in 1987. Mr. Cephas was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1989 by the National Endowment of the Arts.

According to Lynn Volpe, his companion of 10 years, Mr. Cephas was married three times and his survivors include seven children and two stepchildren.

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