As a young boy, Bowling Green John Cephas knew he wanted to play the guitar. All that stood in his way was his father and a few "small lickings."
"My father owned a guitar but he never did perfect the skills to play it," says Cephas, who along with his harmonica-blowing partner Phil Wiggins will join a stellar cast of Washington blues musicians at Roxy (formerly Club Saba) tonight.
"He used to forbid me to play it or even pick it up," Cephas says with a laugh. "I guess he was proud of it. I imagine that he didn't want me to break it up and that probably he didn't want me to get into playing blues music . . . He used to hide it from me, and I don't care where he'd hide it, I'd find it. And he'd always catch me . . . One day, after so many lickings, he told me, 'Look, I always wanted to play this guitar, but I can't. And I can't stop you from trying. So I'm gonna give it to you. It's your guitar.' "
Except for a few years here and there, Cephas, 55, has been playing guitar ever since. Along with fellow Virginian John Jackson, he's widely regarded as one of the finest exponents of the Piedmont tradition, the East Coast finger-picking guitar style popularized by blues men of a previous generation, notably the Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Blake.
"It's really got a nice rhythm," says Wiggins of Cephas' style. "He'll pick out the melody on the high strings and then get a really nice bass line going on the lower strings. He also dampens the bass strings with the palm of his right hand to get a really nice texture. They call it the 'Williamsburg lope,' that style, and it's a nice way to describe it. His playing gives me a lot to work with on the harmonica."
Cephas and Wiggins have been working together since the two first met at a jam session during the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife on the Mall in 1976. At the time Cephas was performing with the later Washington barrelhouse pianist Big Chief Ellis, whom he credits for reawakening his interest in blues music.
"Fifteen or maybe 18 years ago I went to a house party in D.C.," says Cephas, who now lives just outside of Bowling Green, Va. "I'd given up the guitar back then, just got tired of playing it, but I was introduced by a friend to Big Chief Ellis. My friend knew I played the guitar so she suggested I go down to the basement with Chief and jam a little . . . Well, the party was up on the third floor but I went downstairs anyway. It didn't really dawn on me who Big Chief was until he hit that piano and started playing them blues. Right away, I picked up a guitar and it sounded so good. Evidently, it sounded good to the rest of the people too, because they all came downstairs and we had a party till daybreak."
Years later, Wiggins was recruited to join Cephas in Ellis' band, the Barrelhouse Ramblers. Following Ellis' death, Cephas and Wiggins teamed up as a harmonica and guitar duo reminiscent of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. The two fast discovered they had a great deal in common. Among other things both were born in Washington and grew up listening to a mixture of southern blues and religious music.
Wiggins, 31, spent a lot of his childhood at his grandparents' home in Birmingham. "I used to go to church down there and I'd hear a lot of gospel music," he recalls. "On Friday evenings they used to have these prayer sessions and my grandmother used to lead them. I think that was the first bluesy kind of music I ever heard -- all of these call-and-response types of things. They could really make them bluesy."
Wiggins took up the harmonica while in high school and was soon accompanying Washington street singer Flora Molton, who also is scheduled to perform tonight along with fellow guitarist John Jackson, Archie Edwards and Eleanor Ellis.
Playing with Molton really sharpened his ear, Wiggins says. "She plays in a real rhythmic, modal style and just implies the chord changes. Being a solo performer on the street she's used to making the changes whenever she feels like it. So you really have to listen closely to see where she's going. I used to listen to her singing because that's where the melody is. After a while I got to the point where I could anticipate her. But she really taught me the importance of listening to what was going on around you."
Since teaming up, Cephas and Wiggins have toured Europe four times and have cut two albums for the German label L&R. They've also released a new cassette recording called "Let It Roll." They consider it their best work yet.
"There's a variety of tunes on it," says Wiggins. "Lately, John has been doing a lot of Skip James stuff and experimenting with open tunings so it's kind of different."
Cephas agrees and adds: "We're working with some top people like our producer Joe Wilson on this recording, and we're really excited about it. We're in the process of negotiating with a number of different record companies so I think we'll release it as an album soon, too."