Living in the Washington DC area, I have had the pleasure of knowing the late John Cephas and Phil Wiggins. Phil Wiggins met Cephas at a Smithsonian Folklife Festival where Wiggins sat in with pianist Big Chief Ellis and Cephas, later joining the Barrelhouse Rockers, beginning a partnership that would last until Cephas passed away in March 2009. It was one that would be marked by tours around the world, and a number of recordings for a number of labels. The last album the duo recorded, Richmond Blues was for Smithsonian Folkways, part of the label’s African-American Legacy Series and issued in 2008 prior to Cephas’ passing.
It is an album that sounds is oriented more to the duo’s Piedmont blues roots than some of their other relatively recent recordings that included Cephas distinctive interpretations of Skip James and Phil Wiggins’ original songs. The ghost of Blind Boy Fuller hovers over much of this disc as a number of songs the pair perform here are associated with Fuller, including Mamie, Pigmeat Crave, Prison Bound Blues (not the Leroy song of the same title but a song also known as “County Jail Blues), and Step It Up and Go. Fuller’s guitar style is also heard throughout on Cephas’ finger style guitar picking throughout this on performances of Julius Daniel’s Richmond Blues, Big Bill Broonzy’s Keep Your Hands Off My Baby, the sprite Crow Jane, and Key to the Highway.
Cephas was such a solid guitarist, perhaps not quite as spectacular as his friend John jackson, but his fluid playing was complemented by one of the richest voices in acoustic blues that this writer felt had some of the same warmth and expressiveness as Big Bill Broonzy. Wiggins grew into one of the blues most accomplished harmonica players, which he continues to display in performances with Corey Harris, DC area acoustic bluesman Rick Franklin and others. On this, his expressive, vocalized harp work embellishes Cephas’ vocals as well as soars on his own solos.
And while the pair has recorded a good number of these songs before, it certainly is worthy that they chose to revisit some of these, especially the traditional Reno Factory, about the factory that burned down. Cephas learned this from Marvin Foddrell of the Foddrell family of Virginia, themselves quite accomplished although they made few recordings. This was one of the earliest recordings by John Cephas and Phil Wiggins I heard and it still affects me to hear this song so soulfully and wonderfully played. The final recording by two of the blues most significant and accomplished performers, Richmond Blues provides a strong finale to their musical legacy. For more information you might visit the Smithsonian Folkways website, http://www.folkways.si.edu/index.aspx. For “Richmond Blues” follow this link: http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=3216.
Smithsonian Folkways provided me a download of the CD as well as a pdf file of the accompnaying booklet for this review.