Thursday, March 5, 2009

He Stopped And Smiled: The Passing of John Cephas

John Cephas 1930-2009

I am very saddened to report the passing of country blues guitarist, John Cephas. John died of natural causes yesterday, March 4th, at his home in Woodford, VA at the age of 78. Here is an excerpt from the website he shared with his partner, harmonica player, Phil Wiggins:

“Bowling Green” John Cephas was born in Washington, D.C. in 1930 into a deeply religious family. He takes his nickname from Bowling Green, Virginia, where he was raised. His first taste of music was gospel, but blues soon became his calling. His grandfather taught him the folklore of eastern Virginia, where his ancestors had toiled as slaves, and Cephas learned about blues from a guitar-playing aunt. But it was his cousin, David Taleofero, who taught him much of what he plays—the alternating thumb-and-finger picking style that characterizes Piedmont blues.

After learning to play the alternating thumb and fingerpicking style that defines Piedmont blues, John began emulating the records he heard. By the age of nine, John was playing for weekend gatherings with family and friends. Music from the ragtime era and early Piedmont artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red were all influences on Cephas.

As a young man, John joined the Capitol Harmonizers and toured on the gospel circuit. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to the United States and went through a variety of jobs that included professional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman. By the 1960s, Cephas was starting to make a living from his music and, since forming a duo with Wiggins in 1977, John has performed all over the world, serving as an ambassador of this singular American art form.

Among his many endeavors, John serves on the Executive Committe of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, and has testified before congressional committees. He is also a founder of the Washington, D.C. Blues Society. “More than anything else,” says John, “I would like to see a revival of country blues by more young people… more people going to concerts, learning to play the music. That’s why I stay in the field of traditional music. I don’t want it to die.”

Cephas received the coveted National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989. These fellowships recognize those who preserve cultural legacies in music, dance and crafts.

I had the good fortune and pleasure to see and play with John Cephas on a few occasions. Last July Nathan James and I opened up for he and Phil Wiggins at a house concert in Gig Harbor, WA to support the Centrum Country Blues Workshop. One of the songs they played that afternoon (I can't remember it's name) is featured in the video below. It was both peaceful and melancholy, a beautiful tune that made the whole place silent and gave me chills.

Several years before, my partner and I were playing a corporate BBQ at the Taylor Guitar factory, at which John Cephas was an invited guest. He arrived as we were playing and started to walk right on by us to join the crowd and shake some hands. But just as he stepped a couple of feet past the bandstand he stopped, turned around and looked at as us both, a little surprised (I'd like to think) that two young guys here in San Diego county were playing piedmont-style country blues. Mr. Cephas nodded and smiled, pausing for a few seconds more to listen then continued on. That smile was one of the greatest compliments I could have ever received as a country-blues musician. The song we had been playing was by the great Blind Boy Fuller and later in the day John told us that it was one of his favorites.

At a time when our country is faced with economic and political uncertainty we need to remember what really makes us American--the history, passion, and SOUL of our traditional music. This is the thing that people turn to when they are confronted with adversity or heartbreak not governmental institutions. We overlook sometimes, the use of art and music as a tool to help keep us feeling human, flesh and bone, to help us avoid being made into hardened cogs to keep the "machine" running.

Country blues and gospel music are two of the major foundations of American music as we know it today and John Cephas had mastered both of those styles in his lifetime. He toured the world sharing our musical traditions and he worked tirelessly to make sure that our inheritance would be secure by passing those traditions on to countless others here at home.

John Cephas was a national treasure and he will be sorely missed, but I'm thankful his music will continue to live on.


Cephas and Wiggins:
Nathan James & Ben Hernandez:
Blues At Centrum:
Ben Hernandez:


  1. nicely stated...a wonderful eulogy for a fine musician, and to use your word, "treasured" man.

  2. Please accept my Condolences. But I didn't know you were a Blues man... You learn something new everyday.

  3. Ben, deepest sympathy for John's passing. Sounds like he leaves quite the legacy.

    I am very sorry for the circumstances, but it allowed me the opportunity to be exposed to your blog. I just read through the whole thing. I must be living here too long & have taken on an "improper sense of humor" as the line about NPR reporting on Obama's Gigantic Stimulus Package sent me into a giggling fit.

    I've had 5 bucks smoldering in my pocket for one good kazoo solo. You are missed.