Phil Wiggins has a busy afternoon today. At 2 p.m., he'll join his long-time partner, guitarist John Cephas, at the fifth annual Dancin' in the Streets bash on 19th Street above Dupont Circle (Muddy Waters' former lead guitarist, Luther Johnson, heads the blues event). Right after, Cephas and Wiggins will skeedaddle over to Oxon Hill Farm to cap five hours of country blues featuring such other Washington favorites as John Jackson and Flora Molton.
Wiggins, a 29-year-old native of Washington, is also one of the few young black musicians working in the blues idiom. "That's pretty true, though I have a few friends, particularly harp players, who are real good players and have been playing for quite a while," he says, adding that there are two reasons for this anachronism: "A lot of people reject their parents' culture . . . And there's just not as much exposure for blues these days."
Wiggins initially was attracted to the blues "by the sound of it," and remembers hearing streetsinger Flora Molton on a downtown corner early on. "Years later, after leaving town and coming back, I ended up playing with her for a while; that's how I really got started doing serious playing. Also, my folks are from Birmingham, Ala., and when I went down there, I would hear that southern black sound quite a lot, though it would be mainly in the church."
He picked up his first harmonica in high school "just to do something with music. I wasn't planning to get right into the blues, but that's just where I went." A self-taught player, Wiggins "played for a long time before I ever heard of any other harp players besides Sonny Terry. After a couple of years a friend named Skip Matthews turned me on to Little Walter, Big Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. I still never spent a lot of time listening to records or anything, but it opened my eyes to what could be done with the harp."
Wiggins has played with Molton, Cephas, the late Mother Scott and Big Chief Ellis, as well as with a rhythm 'n' blues group called the Fabulous Touchtones.