Blues pioneer John Cephas (Courtesy of the Bowling Green Arts Commission)
When most people hear the word Piedmont, they think of the geographical makeup of Virginia. They think of the region squeezed between the Coastal Plain and the Blue Ridge and if they're like me, they flashback to the fourth grade when remembering these titles posed a significant challenge. However, when we hear the words Piedmont Blues, only one thought should come to mind: the late and legendary John Cephas, whose contribution to the revival of the Piedmont Blues is unrivaled, and — thanks to his small Virginia hometown — unforgotten.
Just a 45-minute drive northeast of Richmond in the center of Caroline County, Cephas' historic hometown of Bowling Green will hold the first John Cephas Piedmont Blues Festival on Saturday, June 13. The free event will run from 2 to 8 p.m. and promises attendees and blues enthusiasts a day of live music from seven musicians paying tribute to the Piedmont Blues and the world-renowned blues pioneer for whom the event is named. While stringy melodies fill the festival air, attendees will also enjoy food vendors, artisan crafts and activities for all ages.
When Cephas died in 2009, admirers from all over the globe attended his funeral, held at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the city of his birth.
“I don’t know that his fame was really understood until he passed away,” says Bowling Green events coordinator Jo-Elsa Jordan, adding that the phrase “you can’t be a hero in your own hometown” especially applies to Cephas.
“He really sort of flew under the radar in town,” Jordan says. “This is really an opportunity not just to bring folks from all over the country to this Piedmont Blues festival and allow them to enjoy the Piedmont Blues, but it’s also an opportunity for us to inspire folks in our own town.”
Phil Wiggins, whose self-taught harmonica skills complemented Cephas' acoustic mastery as the duo Cephas and Wiggins for over 20 years, will perform at the festival. Cephas and Wiggins recorded more than a dozen albums, most recently Richmond Blues, released in 2008 as a part of the Smithsonian Folkways’ African American Legacy series. The duo performed in over 50 countries together, and even took the stage at the White House in 1999.
A world-traveling musician himself, Jay Johnson has worked with the Bowling Green Arts Commission since its inception in 2007. The commission was originally envisioned as focusing on the visual arts, but Johnson has played a large role in expanding its scope to musical expression.
“When I talked to John Cephas’ daughters about having a festival in his name, they said he would have done the same for me,” says Johnson, who helped begin organizing the event a year ago, when the Virginia Department of Historic Resources dedicated a highway marker in memory of his fellow musician and friend.
“This festival is kind of an evolution of that,” Jordan says of the Cephas highway marker. As the events coordinator and a Bowling Green native, her objective is to plan events that residents of her “small, rural town with a very, very large sense of community” can be proud of. This festival is certainly no exception.
Per usual at blues festivals, all of the performing artists will offer hands-on, instructional workshops for those seeking to expand their banjo-style, guitar picking horizons.
“John Cephas was a teacher,” Jordan says, adding, “In addition to his touring, and concert life, and tour life, he also had many students. We saw the workshops as another way of honoring his memory.”
Although the event has not happened yet, Johnson is already anticipating the second annual John Cephas Piedmont Blues Festival — a true testament to Cephas’ role in perpetuating the celebration of this specific genre of traditional music.
“We have already been contacted by musicians who want to come and perform at next year's festival,” Johnson says.
Guitarist John Cephas and harmonica player Phil Wiggins play a version of "Richmond Blues" (circa 1989). Video is courtesy of Houseparty Productions, Takoma Park, Maryland.