An Escape from the News to the Blues – Augusta Blues Week 2016

Posted on July, 30th 2016 by Frank Matheis in | Comments (0)

© 2016 Article and Photographs by Frank Matheis

In the summer of 2016, the insanity theater unfolded: at the tumultuous political convention politicians raged; innocent people were being shot by the police almost weekly; and, policemen, who were not to blame, were being assassinated by retaliatory madmen. Terrorist attacks were taking place worldwide. What could be the best respite from this existentialist reality? Blues summer camp for adults, of course. Call it Escapism 101 from the bleak daily news into the blues, for 150 music lovers of all ages. Weary student-musicians packed their guitars, harmonicas, ukuleles, mandolins, banjos, basses, fiddles and more, shut off their depressing news sources, and went off to the oldest formal summer school for the blues in the United States. They came from all over the US, and as far away as Vancouver, Canada, Hawaii, Ireland and France, to descended upon Blues & Swing Week at the Augusta Heritage Center, the annual workshop at Elkins-Davis College in Elkins, West Virginia. Augusta is in Georgia, right? So why is it called “Augusta Heritage Center?” The program’s website explains, “Augusta was the historic name of West Virginia in its period of earliest settlement. In 1973, “Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops” was the name given to a summer program that was set up to help preserve the Appalachian heritage and traditions. Augusta Heritage Center is known nationally and internationally for its activities relating to traditional folklife and folk arts of many regions and cultures.”

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Jams lasted until the wee hours of the morning

All that translates to pure, unadulterated fun and good-times: Students jamming with their teachers, including world renowned blues virtuosos, until the wee hours of the morning; exuberant dancing and singing, and a joyful spirit of harmony, musically and personally. More fun can hardly be packed into a week, and all that without free flowing liquid libations or drugs. It’s the liberation from the daily blues through the blues, comprised of lectures, classrooms courses, jams, concerts, student showcases and more, all packed into a single week.

Beth King, the Director of the Augusta Heritage Center, stated, “Over the course of the six weeks of programming the goal is to preserve the traditional arts featuring a variety of genres, not just Appalachian, but a wide cross section of the arts, in a wide spectrum of folklore, arts and music. The local community interacts with the program, which started here in this community with some people here who were involved since the very beginning. So much of the community comes to campus interacts with the people who come from all over the US and the world. It’s an open and friendly community. Last year we had seven foreign countries and 49 states represented. Over the six weeks we have around 800 students. Our vision is to support the traditional art with a broad a base as we can, that means to bring in more participants and to grow the family. The new direction for Blues Week is to get more traditional and acoustic. The Augusta family has an important multi-generational aspect, a caring community, the inclusiveness of the program is important to us, to be able for young and old to work with professionals. To me the energy the blues teacher have brought is amazing. Those people have it all. They relate to people and they are very good teacher. Our students have been thrilled and charged by Jerron Paxton, Marcus Cartwright, Phil and all the people he brought. Whether you are a new learner or experienced musician…we welcome everyone in this nurturing experience. Don’t be timid or hesitant about how good you are. You have a place here…” Augusta Weeks include Irish, Cajun/Creole, Bluegrass, Old Time Country and more.

(The most common adjective heard by the students, dancers and music teachers to describe the week was “magical” – and this writer could not find a more appropriate term. It is hard to create journalistic distance when the writer himself had some of the most fun ever packed into a week.)

Valerie Turner teaching beginner level guitar

Valerie Turner teaching beginner level guitar

 A storied history – a bright future

The program was started by Margo Blevin Denton and in 1983 musician/folklorist Joan Fenton integrated blues, an important regional music genre in the Piedmont and Appalachian region, into the program. That was the first summer workshop in the United States to focus on blues music, folklore, craft and dance. The first blues teachers came from the nearby “Piedmont” acoustic scene in Washington, D.C. – John Jackson, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins. The 2016 Blues and Swing Week continues the tradition of bringing together kindred spirits for a week of musical sanctuary in the scenic Monongahlea National Forest in the High Allegheny Mountains.

Phil Wiggins has been part of Augusta Blues Week since its beginning in 1983.

Phil Wiggins has been part of Augusta Blues Week since its beginning in 1983.

Wrapped in a blanket of self-imposed bliss, students and teachers again set upon this quaint small mountain college to learn and play blues, from and with master musicians, for equal parts music, fun, peace and fellowship. The event coordinator, internationally renowned harmonica ace Phil Wiggins, was called back to the program by one of the original founders, Joan Fenton, to resuscitate the Blues program that has lost ground over the years to similar summer schools. His counterpart, Wendi Bourne, organized the Swing portion of the program, and both worked closely together to create a beautiful event of music lessons, jams, dances and performances by teachers and students.

Nowadays, potential students have a wide array of choices for summer programs offering blues related music instruction: the Centrum Port Townsend Acoustic Blues workshop in Washington State, the Swannanoa gathering in North Carolina and Jorma & Vanessa Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in southeast Ohio, to name just a few. The Augusta program in some ways had seen a decline. Both Fenton and Wiggins were called back after long absences with the mission of bringing the music camp back to the roots of traditional blues.

Joan Fenton reminisces

Joan Fenton was one of the original founders of Blues Week.Joan Fenton is a folklorist, guitarist and the founder of the Blues Week of Augusta. She was the first to bring African American folk traditions into the fold of the Augusta Heritage Center’s musical programs in 1983, recognizing not only that black musical traditions were an integral part of the region, particularly Piedmont style roots & blues, but also that practitioners of this genre lived nearby. She taught a popular class of moveable chords.

Musican and folklorist Joan Fenton recalls how Blues Week got started: “The first one was in 1983. Margo Blevin was the director of Augusta. She had decided that she wanted to hire Sparky Rucker, one of the instructors. I decided I definitely wanted to hire John Jackson. And we decided we wanted a harmonica teacher, and neither of us knew a harmonica teacher, believe it or not, so somebody – it could have been John Jackson, but I don’t know who, recommended that we hire Phil. So we hired Phil for the first year. In the first year we had 15 students, and Sparky Rucker got stuck in Customs, didn’t get here till Tuesday. John Jackson was late – didn’t get here until Monday – so it was only Phil and me when it started. So he had the harmonica students and I had all the guitar students for the first day and it was wonderful, just very exciting, very delightful. Everybody was thrilled with the program. We had somebody from Switzerland who came; and somebody from Singapore. Phil is somebody who I hired every year that I was coordinator to be on the program. He said to me that year, when we were talking about doing it again, he said, “I play with this guitar player, John Cephas, and I’d like you to consider hiring him.” I believe I had heard john play with Big Chief Ellis, so I was familiar with him – so the second year we hired John Cephas – and we also hired a woman by the name of Maureen Delgrosso to teach piano. So the program just started growing and growing and growing. And Phil just became an institution here, as did John.”

Phil Wiggins Returns

Harmonica master Phil Wiggins has spent more than 40 years playing the blues, including more than three decades in the highly successful guitar-harmonica duo Cephas & Wiggins. He has played and performed in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, performed at the White House for two presidents and has won three of the prestigious Blues Foundation W.C. Handy awards. Widely considered to be among the best on the little instrument, a true “harmonica player’s harmonica player,” he has virtuosic skills that are simply unmatched. In 2016 he was again nominated by Living Blues as one of the top harp-players. He has played with more musicians than can into a short article, but to name a few: Esther Mae Scott, Flora Molton, John Jackson, Ed Morris, John Cephas, Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood, Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis, Sunnyland Slim, Henry Townsend, Honeyboy Edwards, Lonnie Pitchford, Nat Reese and many more. Most recently he has fronted his own ensemble, The Chesapeake Sheiks and he frequently appears with Eleanor Ellis and Rick Franklin.

Pure, unadulterated fun

Phil Wiggins leads a jam session

Phil Wiggins leads a jam session

Some people outside of the genre might imagine summer blues camp to be a bunch of boring old folks sitting around a circle learning how to play sad songs. In actually, it was more fun than should be allowed, with a wide range of folks of all ages and interests having a real good time, not just of fellowship and camaraderie, but with great music all around them. People of all musical skill levels, from rank neophyte to advanced players, took classes in the mornings with some of the finest practitioners in the acoustic blues and played music until the crack of dawn. The teachers were all renowned, famous players who are well established in the acoustic blues, including some real virtuosos, world-class players. No wonder so many students have returned year after year for decades, like Rita Perkins, a retiree from the Twin-Cities are of Minnesota. She has participated for 10 years, initially taking courses with the great John Cephas. “Back the I was way in over my head, just trying to figure out what was going on. I also took courses with Joan Fenton. I was just beginning to love the blues. Some friends had come before and my friend Cathy inspired me and I joined her at Blues Camp.” Now, in 2016, she played her Martin guitar with exquisite skill and considerable joy.

Reviving the convergence of dance and acoustic blues

Coordinator Phil Wiggins sought to unite the acoustic blues & dance with the original spirit of the music program by again bringing in African-American traditional blues musicians, this time with a troupe of dancers, in the heritage of the black community of the Piedmont and Appalachian region. His vision was to foster the give and take process, the interaction of students and teachers, and for dancers to partake in the process and for musicians and dancers to inspire each other. “Blues music is dance music and dance is a musical expression of the complex history of the acoustic blues,” said Junious Brickhouse, the dance coordinator of Blues Week and the founder and executive director of Urban Artistry, a Washington, D.C./Maryland based non-profit organization dedicated to the performance and preservation of art forms inspired by the urban experience. Brickhouse brought along a troupe of young Urban Artistry dancers to the event, and invited special guests, such as the renowned dance teacher Moncell Durden and the famous buck dancer Williette Hinton from North Carolina, son of Algia Mae Hinton. Hinton and Wiggins have collaborated before, as Wiggins has been integrating dance in most of his recent projects, including with Junious Brickhouse, Baakari Wilder and Williette Hinton.

The renowned and famous buck dancer Wiliette Hinton joined Urban Artistry to teach a class.

The renowned and famous buck dancer Wiliette Hinton joined Urban Artistry to teach a class.

Expert dance instructors Durden and Brickhouse led the team of young Urban Artistry dancers and the dance students in the class to create a beautiful scene of physical expression. The spirited and skilled dancers inspired participants to join in and transfixed the event into a joyful occasion. The dancers were especially fired up when they were joined as teacher and dance partner by Hinton, who they all admired and felt inspired by as one of the living-greats in the art form. Hinton led everyone on the pavilion dance floor in an unforgettable night of joyful dancing.

Backing the dancers

Phil Wiggins said, “To make a workshop like this work, you need to bring in musicians who you know are of generous spirit”, so he brought along some of his musical soulmates to help teach and jam. Some of the teachers had double-duty. In addition to their daily teaching assignments and the general jam sessions they backed the dance classes and event. For that, Phil needed hardcore players, the “generous spirit” type of musicians who can’t stop playing, even after the gig is over. That magical core musical ensemble of people who love to play from the minute they wake up until the wee hours of the morning, “the core band” for the dances was the explosive country blues trio of Phil Wiggins on harmonica, multi-instrumentalist Jerron Paxton on guitar, banjo, fiddle and more, and the 22-year old blues sensation Marcus Lamont Cartwright, a guitarist from Louisiana. They were steadily present at seemingly every jam and dance performing all day long until late into the next morning with such unbridled joy of playing that they literally ignited the dancers. North Carolina multi-instrumentalist Mike “Lightning” Wells joined Phil and Jerron for a dance on the main Pavillion of Elkins Davis College.

The amazing acoustic blues trio of Jerron Paxton, Marcus Cartwright and Phil Wiggins were the "dance band."

The amazing acoustic blues trio of Jerron Paxton, Marcus Cartwright and Phil Wiggins were the “dance band.”

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Jerron Paxton working out a number with Marcus Cartwright

PHil Wiggins, two friends, frequent collaborators and soul mates worked together to make the even a huge success.

Phil Wiggins and Jerron Paxton, two friends, frequent collaborators and soul mates worked together to make the even a huge success.

Multiple blues award winner Jerron Paxton, a sheer musical genius, has an almost insatiable hunger for playing, and the only guy that could possible keep up with him in the euphoric compulsion to play was the brilliant young Marcus Cartwright. With Phil at the helm as senior musician, they formed a powerhouse acoustic blues trio of such enormous combined skill and musical exuberance, it was infectious and history making. Jerron Paxton is not just one of the most talented roots & blues musicians of our time, he is a witty Master of Ceremonies, who added a dimension of off-the-wall humor to the instructor performance. He said, among other funny quips, “We want to teach you how to play together nicely. Music goes good with everything. It’s kind of like salt. (Long pause. The audience is searching for meaning. Salt? What? Until he finally closed the deal with)…It’s all a matter of proportion!” It took a while for the bard’s sharp wit to sink in until the auditorium of student and teachers finally got the point, and Jerron just got started from there throwing out his many funny ditties. Paxton can play anything from deep roots Appalachian mountain music on fiddle and banjo to deep roots blues. He taught String Band/Jug Band performance and he played, and played and played.

Jerron Paxton performing for the assembled students, teachers and program crew.

Jerron Paxton performing for the assembled students, teachers and program crew.

A superb lineup of teachers

Phil picked them for a combination of reasons, great virtuosic and teaching skills, a true connection to the African American traditions and respect for that culture, and, most importantly, really nice, fun to be with people.

Geoff "Sting Brim" Seals

Geoff “Stingy Brim” Seals from Washington, DC taught harmonica for beginners. The Washington, D.C. native is a constant presence at the Archie’s Barbershop Foundation. He is an excellent player who, like many others, look to Phil as mentor and role model. He is a student of the roots & blues harmonica tradition and a fun guy to hang out with, and a major presence at the evening jam sessions.

Harmonica ace and singer Andrew Alli

Andrew Alli from Richmond, Virginia, has a rich golden voice and he can play the harp like the best of them. He has powerful renditions of Muddy Waters songs with Little Walter’s part covered smoothly, but anything he plays and sings comes out dynamite, be it Little Walter, Big Walter Horton or anybody in-between. He plays in a regular acoustic duo with Josh Small in Richmond, and they are two fiery guys to keep an ear on.

Joe Filisko, one of the top harmonica players in the acoustic blues and roots genre today, has been in an acoustic harmonica-guitar duo with Eric Noden for 13 years, and it shows. The pair is tight, versatile and skilled beyond belief. Filiko is not just an extraordinary harmonica stylist, he is an experienced and skilled teacher whose courses were well received because he knows how to teach the right combinations of riffs and theory, everything needed by blues harp players of all levels. His partner Eric Noden taught fingerstyle slide guitar and was active supporting the late night jams until the wee hours. He is a highly versatile and skilled player with a huge repertoire who delighted students and fellow pros with his generous spirit and considerable guitar and singing skills. He also taught an important class in Grooves for Blues Guitar and Harmonica.

Joe Filisko, one of the top harmonica players in the acoustic blues and roots genre today, has been in an acoustic harmonica-guitar duo with Eric Noden for 13 years, and it shows. The pair is tight, versatile and skilled beyond belief. Filiko is not just an extraordinary harmonica stylist, he is an experienced and skilled teacher whose courses were well received because he knows how to teach the right combinations of riffs and theory, everything needed by blues harp players of all levels.
His partner Eric Noden taught fingerstyle slide guitar and was active supporting the late night jams until the wee hours. He is a highly versatile and skilled player with a huge repertoire who delighted students and fellow pros with his generous spirit and considerable guitar and singing skills. He also taught an important class in Grooves for Blues Guitar and Harmonica.

Samuel James, a wildly individualistic player equally rooted in traditional blues and free expressionsm, taught slide guitar and declared, “I am from Maine. They don’t have any black people up there now, because I am here.” His own sound is reminiscent of Son House, his singing like Tom Waits, but he is like nobody else on the plant. A powerful performer and spirited instrumentalist, he taught beginning slide guitar and thrilled students during his performances.

Samuel James, a wildly individualistic player equally rooted in traditional blues and free expressionsm, taught slide guitar and declared, “I am from Maine. They don’t have any black people up there now, because I am here.” His own sound is reminiscent of Son House, his singing like Tom Waits, but he is like nobody else on the plant. A powerful performer and spirited instrumentalist, he taught beginning slide guitar and thrilled students during his performances.

Eleanor Ellis is one of the foremost practitioners of the Piedmont fingerpicking style guitar. She spent many years playing with D.C. blues woman Flora Molton and she is an intrgal member of the D.C. blues scene. Today she is one of the finest practitioners in the acoustic blues genre and a frequent collaborator with Phil Wiggins, Rick Franklin and many others. She taught acoustic blues repertoire and Dropped –D tuning.

Eleanor Ellis is one of the foremost practitioners of the Piedmont fingerpicking style guitar. She spent many years playing with D.C. blues woman Flora Molton and she is an intrgal member of the D.C. blues scene. Today she is one of the finest practitioners in the acoustic blues genre and a frequent collaborator with Phil Wiggins, Rick Franklin and many others. She taught acoustic blues repertoire and Dropped –D tuning.

Martin Grosswendt, fresh off The Ragpicker String Band project, with blues mandolinist Rich DelGrosso and acoustic blues guitarist Mary Flower, taught guitar. Widely considered to rank among the top tier of guitarists, he taught courses in Weird Country Blues an Beautiful Blues Guitar respectively, bringing in a whole new perspective to burgeoning blues players. Martin’s high level of virtuosity was inspirational to the many guitarists in the camp.

Martin Grosswendt, fresh off The Ragpicker String Band project, with blues mandolinist Rich DelGrosso and acoustic blues guitarist Mary Flower, taught guitar. Widely considered to rank among the top tier of guitarists, he taught courses in Weird Country Blues an Beautiful Blues Guitar respectively, bringing in a whole new perspective to burgeoning blues players. Martin’s high level of virtuosity was inspirational to the many guitarists in the camp.

Valerie Turner continues the Piedmont blues tradition as taught to her by her teacher and mentor John Cephas, the great Piedmont blues guitarist and singer, and the musical duo partner of Phil Wiggins. She taught beginners’ level guitar and delighted with her performances with her gentle, sweet style of playing that many compare to Elizabeth Cotton and Etta Baker. She performs in a duo Piedmont Bluz with her husband Benedict Turner, who builds and plays washboard percussion.

Valerie Turner continues the Piedmont blues tradition as taught to her by her teacher and mentor John Cephas, the great Piedmont blues guitarist and singer, and the musical duo partner of Phil Wiggins. She taught beginners’ level guitar and delighted with her performances with her gentle, sweet style of playing that many compare to Elizabeth Cotton and Etta Baker. She performs in a duo Piedmont Bluz with her husband Benedict Turner, who builds and plays washboard percussion.

Marcus Cartwright, just 22 years old, taught Delta Blues Vocal Repertoire. The sensational young bard was literally the life of the party, along with his steady partners Phil Wiggins and Jerron Paxton. The Louisiana native delighted everybody with his seemingly endless repertoire and musical versatility and sheer love of playing and singing. He is a rising star in the delta blues, but can swing in any direction from Piedmont to soul music. No matter what he plays, his infectious smile, sheer joy and exuberance made him one of the outstanding characters at Blues Week. Surely, great things are yet to come from this extremely talented singer/guitarist.

Marcus Cartwright, just 22 years old, taught Delta Blues Vocal Repertoire. The sensational young bard was literally the life of the party, along with his steady partners Phil Wiggins and Jerron Paxton. The Louisiana native delighted everybody with his seemingly endless repertoire and musical versatility and sheer love of playing and singing. He is a rising star in the delta blues, but can swing in any direction from Piedmont to soul music. No matter what he plays, his infectious smile, sheer joy and exuberance made him one of the outstanding characters at Blues Week. Surely, great things are yet to come from this extremely talented singer/guitarist.

Resa Gibbs, normally singer and multi-instrumentalist with the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio, With Jackie Merritt and Miles Spicer. She taught Blues Vocal Repertoire and Blues Vocal Tech Performance. The, she appeared several times to sing to the students, and literally brought tears to the eyes of this writer and many in the audience. Her soulful style, rooted equally in spirituals, gospel and blues, carries such heartfelt emotive beauty that she could melt a cold, cold heart. What an amazing singer and delightful person. Here she is with her partner Jackie Merritt, who accompanied Resa and others during the camp, on spoons, harmonica and more.

Resa Gibbs, normally singer and multi-instrumentalist with the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio,
With Jackie Merritt and Miles Spicer. She taught Blues Vocal Repertoire and Blues Vocal Tech Performance. Then, she appeared several times to sing to the students, and literally brought tears to the eyes of this writer and many in the audience. Her soulful style, rooted equally in spirituals, gospel and blues, carries such heartfelt emotive beauty that she could melt a cold, cold heart. What an amazing singer and delightful person. Here she is with her partner Jackie Merritt, who accompanied Resa and others during the camp, on bones, harmonica and more.

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Mike “Lightning” Wells from North Carolina taught ukelele as the only teacher of that resurging instrument mostly know from Hawaiian traditions, that was popular in the 1920s and is again enjoying popularity. The North Carolina based multi-instrumentalist is equally well versed in the Piedmont blues and white Appalachian roots traditions, with a wide-ranging repertoire. He joined the “core band” at the pavilion dance on guitar, where he showcased his musical versatility. This amazing guy can play anything.

Erwin Helfer, boogie-woogie and blues player taught Blues Piano, and students were in for a treat as the great virtuoso who recorded for Chess Records, Testament Records, Flying Fish Records, and various European labels, graced the classroom. He played with some of the best and was the pianist for Estelle Yancey. His illustrious career spanned 50 years, and he is widely respected as lecturer, teacher and performer. Not only that, he is kind, generous in teaching and sharing his vast knowledge. He was simply beloved by his students and all who were fortunate to be in his presence.

Erwin Helfer, boogie-woogie and blues player taught Blues Piano, and students were in for a treat as the great virtuoso who recorded for Chess Records, Testament Records, Flying Fish Records, and various European labels, graced the classroom. He played with some of the best and was the pianist for Estelle Yancey. His illustrious career spanned 50 years, and he is widely respected as lecturer, teacher and performer. Not only that, he is kind, generous in teaching and sharing his vast knowledge. He was simply beloved by his students and all who were fortunate to be in his presence.

Judy LaPrade taught Beginning Blues Piano and Blues Theory 101. As a skilled pianist, she met her husband Phil Wiggins at Augusta Blues Week in 1985, and it should be in the stars that both contribute so greatly to the revival and success of the Blues program. Judy injured her knee during the event and nonetheless carried on teaching her classes and inspiring her students. She understands the teaching process and relates beginning students well, having grown up playing piano, playing for her church starting about age ten. She also directed and played for the patient choir at the local state mental hospital from age thirteen. Photo courtesy of Augusta Heritage Center.

Judy LaPrade taught Beginning Blues Piano and Blues Theory 101. As a skilled pianist, she met her husband Phil Wiggins at Augusta Blues Week in 1985, and it should be in the stars that both contribute so greatly to the revival and success of the Blues program. Judy injured her knee during the event and nonetheless carried on teaching her classes and inspiring her students. She understands the teaching process and relates beginning students well, having grown up playing piano, playing for her church starting about age ten. She also directed and played for the patient choir at the local state mental hospital from age thirteen.
Photo courtesy of Augusta Heritage Center.

The Urban Artistry Dancers

Phil Wiggins’ current effort is to reunite dance with acoustic blues and this collaboration had connected him with Junious Brickhouse, the founder and executive director of Urban Artistry. The Urban Artistry Dance Academy, located in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., describes their mission as “…provides an interdisciplinary urban dance education with a global perspective. Students are encouraged to become active participants and thought leaders in their respective communities, where they are not limited to mainstream trends but strive to become advocates of cultural preservation and artistic innovation.” Brickhouse, whose troupe now bridges the gamut of the Africa American dance experience from contemporary urban hip-hop to the traditional acoustic blues roots, invited special guests Moncell Durden, Rebecca Conley and Abigail Browning to Augusta Blues Week. His remarkable team of young dancers ignited Blues Week.

Hawnnah George Wheeler, Maren Cummings, Jade Ballard, Ryan Webb and Michael Esmeralda were a steady presence and they danced with such grace, beauty and joy to the old blues and roots music that anyone in their presence was filled with happiness and joy. It was almost indescribably fun, where this writer would have to reach for descriptive adjectives and none would seemingly do justice to the truly euphoric stat of happiness these young people brought to the event.

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The delightful Jade Ballard and Michael Esmeralda

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Folks of all ages enjoyed the dances.

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Jade Ballard was infectious with her never ending smile and total happiness in dancing.

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The urban Artistry troupe led by Junious Brickhouse (red shirt), the band – Marcus Cartwright and Phil Wiggins, all the Urban Artistry dancers and students.

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Hawnnah George Wheeler (front) was another wonderful dancer who shined during this Blues camp.

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Brother Junious Brickhouse getting down.

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Maren Cummings had class and style

It don’t mean a thing…well, you know

If it ain’t got that swing, and it was, after all Blues & Swing week combined. While this article focuses on the blues portion, there was a fun time over on the swing side and the two halves converged in numerous joint performances. Swing organizer Wendi Bourne invited top-notch musicians.

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    The graceful dancer Jade Ballard infected everybody with her never ending smile

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    A good time was had by all and many new friendships were formed.

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    Bassist Ralph Gordon, guitarist Dave Davies and Phil Wiggins joining forces.

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    Wendi Bourne did an outstanding job organizing Blues & Swing week. She was a steadfast force behind it all. Here she is with the extraordinary guitarist Matt Munisteri setting up to support singer Rebecca Kilgore.

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    Pianist Robert Redd, Violinist Jason Anick, bassist Ralph Gordon, and guitarist Matt Munisteri swing like mad.

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    Singer Rebecca Kilgore joined by bassist Ralph Gordon and Carol Sudhalter on sax.

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    Rebecca Kilgore sang like an angel.

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    Bassist Ralph Gordon is equally at home in the blues and jazz.

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    Pianist Robert Redd is a powerhouse.

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    People of all ages sure had fun.

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    Frank Matheis is a radio producer and music journalist. He is the publisher of thecountryblues.com, a contributing writer to Living Blues and he has published in SingOut!, Blues Access and many other publications. His radio documentaries have aired in the US, Germany and Australia. Photo by: Lisa Emaleh 2016.

    frank056

The First Annual John Cephas Piedmont Blues Festival • June 13, 2015 • Bowling Green, Virginia.

Posted on June, 18th 2015 by Frank Matheis in | Comments (0)
JohnCephas2

John Cephas photographed by Bibiana Huang Matheis

article and photos by Frank Matheis © 2015

As the traditional blues musicians took center stage on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, temperatures reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade (39 C) in the Historic Town of Bowling Green, Virginia, with kettle-steam southern humidity. To celebrate hometown hero John Cephas, this little town put on an extraordinary acoustic blues concert to pay tribute to the Piedmont blues troubadour.

Fortunately, neither the musicians nor the audience let the heat detract them from having a fun time and enjoying some wonderful acoustic blues. A spirit of harmony pervaded among audience, musicians and local community, in evident fraternity with the spirit of John Cephas, who is by now a legend in the region where he is celebrated as the prodigious son. The tranquil small town had closed off Main Street and decked out the streets in full glory for the great Piedmont bluesman.  It was a fitting tribute to a deserved honoree.

John Cephas, the celebrity descendant of Bowling Green, had reached international fame as a recording artist and performer, traveling all continents of the world. His long resumé even includes playing in the White House with his partner Phil Wiggins, standing alongside B.B. King. He won major arts awards and the hearts of roots & blues fans worldwide. Like many blues musicans and folk artists, he started out playing locally at house parties; but, like very few, he ended up playing to the world. Phil Wiggins, his musical partner of 33 years, said on stage during the festival, “John Cephas was proud of his hometown of Bowling Green and wherever he went, he represented you well as ambassador to the music and the place he loved.”

In a fitting salute to his duo partner and friend, Phil Wiggins, the star and anchor of the concert, brought along a set of today’s most vital Piedmont Blues musicians, all with direct connections to John Cephas, as students or friends: Warner Williams & Jay Summerour with Robert Flowers; Eleanor Ellis; Rick Franklin; The MSG Acoustic Blues Trio; Piedmont Bluz; Marc Pessar, and Willie Sisson.

Front: (L to R) Miles Spicer, Eleanor Ellis, Valerie Turner, Benedict Turner. Rear: (L to R) Warner Williams, Jay Summerour, Rick Franklin, Jackie Merrit, Resa Gibss, Marc Pessar, Phil Wiggins.

Front: (L to R) Miles Spicer, Eleanor Ellis, Valerie Turner, Benedict Turner.
Rear: (L to R) Warner Williams, Jay Summerour, Rick Franklin, Jackie Merrit, Resa Gibss, Marc Pessar, Phil Wiggins.

Jay Summerour, Jeff Place and Phil Wiggins

Jay Summerour, Jeff Place and Phil Wiggins

Even the Master of Ceremonies is a VIP. Jeff Place, the renowned musicologist at Smithsonian Folkways with long connections to the blues in the region, came fresh off the release of his newest project which is sure to be a Grammy nominee: Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, the first career-spanning box set with 5 CDs and 140-page, large-format book.

John Cephas used to refer to Bowling Green as his hometown, although he was born and raised in Washington, D.C., because this was his ancestral town where he spent his summers. He always held a fond and special spot in his heart for his hometown and the musical traditions of the region. In his early recordings, he was even referred to as “Bowing Green John Cephas”, but that was more an effort by the record company to peg a blues name for him, as if he needed one. Later, once calling his own shots, he would drop that name as he and his partner, harmonica virtuoso Phil Wiggins, came to be internationally renowned as Cephas & Wiggins, the greatest guitar and harmonica duo since Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

The golden voiced John Cephas was the quintessential east coast blues musician, part songster, part bluesman with a repertoire that spanned a wide range of genres, from popular to folk songs, from country western to deep roots blues, all played in the syncopated, intricate fingerpicking tradition nowadays called Piedmont Blues. This style of blues was best described by Dr. Julia Olin, Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, as “the melodic, delicate, lyrical blues of this region. It’s not as percussive as other forms of blues. It’s not out of the cotton fields. There are no field holler moans. It even sounds fun.” The rich folk tradition in the Piedmont country blues owes much to ragtime, traditional Appalachian Mountain music, African American string music, spirituals and gospel, rural African American dance music, and the early white country music of the 1930s. This blues style features intricate fingerpicking with alternating bass and a simultaneous syncopated melody picked on the treble strings. Piedmont blues has a certain sweetness in the guitar style, but the thematic of these blues can be about the sacred, or the profane, about hardship, struggle, murder, pain, suffering, drinking, trouble with the opposite sex, and more. It’s the kind of blues where if you don’t understand the English, the singing and melody sounds so lovely and sweet, but if you hear and understand the words you can feel the bite.

Phil Wiggins was the dup partner of John Cephas for more than three decades.

Phil Wiggins was the duo partner of John Cephas for more than three decades.

The elder statesman and main talent organizer of the concert was harmonica virtuoso Phil Wiggins, the longtime musical duo partner of John Cephas, himself international renowned, acclaimed and famed. He deftly sat in with the various ensembles throughout the concert, each time lifting the set with his unmatched harmonica chops. No matter who is playing what, Phil can play it and when he does the roof flies off the house. When he wants to he can rip pile-driver solos, or add sweet backing to the guitarists, other times he bends  mournful wails that can peel the varnish off the guitars – and he did all that in this festival. He sat in with virtually all performers throughout the festival, concluding the night in a duo with John Cephas’ student Willie Sisson, and his frequent partners Eleanor Ellis and Rick Franklin. In his own set he sang and performed solo several of his excellent originals, which are an important part of his current repertoire as frontman.

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Warner Williams and Jay Summerour playing in the hallway of the workshop area.

Songster Warner Williams and his harmonica duo partner, Jay Summerour, accompanied by Robert Flowers on drums, dazzled the audience with their deep-roots blues. Williams and Summerour have perfected their performance over decades, with Summerour adding tasteful harmonica backing to the William’s vast repertoire. Summerour’s approach is to come in behind the old master, adding colorful touches without overpowering the guitarist. The elder Williams is a consummate musician at heart, whose love of playing is seemingly boundless. He just won’t quit, having started playing in the hotel lobby before the other musicians even got out of bed, again before his set in the hallways in Bowling Green, and again late in the evening in the hotel lobby after a full day of playing. He is getting hard of hearing in his old age, and he doesn’t talk much, preferring to let his fretwork do the taking, and when he does, everything comes to a standstill. The other hotel guests, some whom may never have been exposed to the acoustic blues, were impressed and amazed at the free performances. Suddenly they were fortuitously in the presence of one of the greatest living practitioners of the old blues – and loving it.

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Rick Franklin was a crowd favorite.

Guitarist and singer Rick Franklin, another Piedmont great who came out of Archie Edward’s famous barbershop scene, and a frequently collaborator with harmonica ace Phil Wiggins, took the stage after Williams and Summerour. A giant of a man with a  kind disposition, his musical stature has risen to even greater heights. The picker delivered a captivating set that demonstrated his technical prowess, and his true love of the music. He connected with the audience beautifully, enchanting the crowd with his warm voice and gentle guitar style. Rick Franklin is one of the best acoustic bluesmen anywhere, a man who has paid his dues and now shines among the best and brightest on the scene.

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The MSG Acoustic Blues Trio: L to R: Jackie Merritt, Miles Spicer, Resa Gibbs.

The MSG Acoustic Blues Trio – Jackie Merritt, Miles Spicer and Resa Gibbs, performed this gig right before their debut at the Chicago Blues Festival, where they will surely make a profound impression. They came out swinging and stomping on their set for John Cephas, with fire and brimstone fury. The super-talented trio has the chops, and this time they revved up their set opening with a rhythmic tour de force. They have played together for many years, and right now, including on stage at this festival, they are peaking, combining a range of instruments and old standards with original compositions. The lead singer Resa Gibbs is not just one of the best singers in the Piedmont region, but in the blues today, period. Part church gospel, spiritual, blues and soul, she has the voice that enthralls so powerfully it would take a heart of stone not to be moved. On this set again, Gibbs sang like an angel, uplifting the audience and fellow musicians alike. Jackie Meritt, witty songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist and guitarist Miles Spicer  each carried the show. Guitarist Miles Spicer was fired up on this day, sounding great and adding real punch to the set, including with strong singing.

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Piedmont Bluz: Valerie Turner and Benedict Turner

Piedmont Bluz, the husband and wife duo of guitarist/singer Valerie Turner and Benedict Turner, is the only acoustic duo that combines washboard percussion with Piedmont blues guitar. Valerie was a guitar student of John Cephas, and Lynn Volpe, John’s partner, once told this writer that John considered Valerie to be his true heir, the one that he expected to carry on his style. She does not wait for tributes to John to pay respect to her master teacher, something which she does so in every show, carrying on his legacy and understanding that the trust and confidence that John Cephas bestowed on her is a hard honor to live up to. She managed to do just that at this festival, with superb, eloquent guitar picking, a repertoire deeply reflective of John Cephas and a wonderful way to communicate with the audience, to explain the music the songs and the meaning of the music. John Cephas would be proud to see how this duo carries on his legacy, with truehearted love. Benedict Turner added gentle percussion that fits just right. Wherever they go they make new fans and spread the Piedmont blues.

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Eleanor Ellis is one of the most respected and revered Piedmont Blues artists.

Eleanor Ellis, the grand femme of the Piedmont blues, the redheaded Washington, DC, blues woman originally from Louisiana, was an accepted member of the inner circle at Archie’s barbershop in Washington, DC and a frequent partner with the late singer Flora Molton. Today, she ranks among the finest living acoustic blues women in the US, and probably the world. To hear Eleanor Ellis is a sheer musical delight and this show was no exception. She is a frequent partner with Phil Wiggins, often in combination with Rick Franklin, and she tours internationally. She has been a source of inspiration, including to the other women with whom she shared the stage during this festival, but also as a mentor to new generations of younger blues players like Erin Harpe. Eleanor Ellis took the stage and established herself within seconds as a performer who feels the Piedmont blues deep down to her soul, and who enthralls an audience the instant she starts playing, always with perfection and passion.

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Marc Pessar

Marc Pessar, a fine guitarist and proponent of the Piedmont style, was another student of John Cephas. He has mostly carried on as an accomplished amateur, and he proved that whenever he wants he can step onto the main stage and do justice to the music and to his teacher. He performed an impressive set and was well received by the appreciative audience. Marc Pessar can play, and now that he is retired from his day job, we may hopefully see more of him.

 

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Phil Wiggins and Willie Sisson

Willie Sisson, who Phil Wiggins called “The most dedicated student of John Cephas” seemingly had the most fun playing. The young man beamed ear to ear during his entire set, and kicked out a raucous version of Stagollee. He proudly showed off the guitar chops he learned from John Cephas and the people loved it. It was great to hear Willie, a performer who we will hopefully see more of.

What people perhaps didn’t recognize was that this concert for John Cephas, while relatively small, was still one of the biggest acoustic blues events in the nation. Most blues festivals feature mostly electric blues, and a smattering of acoustic blues players on the roster. It is refreshing that the Piedmont Blues is alive and well, with main billing. Can’t wait to do it again next year.

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Soundman Jay Johnson helped organize the event and set the stage.

 

Events coordinator Jo-Elsa Jordan worked the floor like a mother hen taking care of every conceivable detail.

Events coordinator Jo-Elsa Jordan worked the floor like a mother hen taking care of every conceivable detail.

 

The polite local police force had no troubles, other than a man who was overcome by heat exhaustion. Maybe it was because he didn’t have an ID, as the best relief form the sweltering day was the cold beer they sold in a little tent, but even octogenarians were carded. No I.D. no beer. These crazy liquor laws!

The polite local police force had no troubles, other than a man who was overcome by heat exhaustion.

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It was a unique gathering in this friendly little town. The crowd of approximately 500 people flowed in and out all day long and scattered under various shady spots

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It was so hot, Jay Summerour’s harmonica case actually melted.

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Willie Sisson

The guitar and harmonica workshops before the concert were well attended.

The guitar and harmonica workshops before the concert were well attended.

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Jackie Merritt of the MSG Acosutic Blues Trio with Warner Williams

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the Piedmont Bluz duo

Benedict Turner of Piedmont Bluz on his self-designed and built washboard

Benedict Turner of Piedmont Bluz on his self-designed and built washboard

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Phil Wiggins closed out the evening with Rick Franklin and Eleanor Ellis.

Phil Wiggins with Marc Pessar

Phil Wiggins with Marc Pessar

Phil Wiggins with Willie Sisson

Phil Wiggins with Willie Sisson

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A good time was had by all

Rsae Gibbs sings like an angel…and she plays many instruments, such as washboard.

Resa Gibbs sings like an angel…and she plays many instruments, such as washboard.

This gentleman remembered John Cephas from the good old days. he calls himself "Mr. John".

This gentleman remembered John Cephas from the good old days. he calls himself “Mr. John”.

 

Phil Wiggins with Piedmont Bluz

Phil Wiggins with Piedmont Bluz’ Valerie Turner

The Baker family of Bowling Green came out in full force/

The Baker family of Bowling Green came out in full force.

Volunteers and event staff made the concert a big success.

Volunteers and event staff made the concert a big success.

The amazing res a Gibbs in a moment of contemplation

The amazing Resa Gibbs in a moment of contemplation

Women in the Blues: Top: Jackie Merritt and resa Gibbs. Front: Eleanor Ellis and Valerie Turner

Women in the Blues: Top:
Jackie Merritt and Resa Gibbs.
Front: Eleanor Ellis and Valerie Turner

This writer, Frank Matheis, with Valerie Turner of Piedmont Bluz

This writer, Frank Matheis, with Valerie Turner of Piedmont Bluz

 

Judy LaPrade

Judy LaPrade

 

A good time was had by all

A good time was had by all

Miles Spicer of the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio

Miles Spicer of the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio

Warner Williams

Warner Williams

A good time was had by all

A good time was had by all

A god time was had by all

A good time was had by all

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

thecountryblues.com sponsors ‘Women in the Blues’ Concert at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY

Posted on March, 18th 2015 by Frank Matheis in | Comments (0)
Guitarist and singer Valerie Turner carries on the Piedmont Blues tradition

Guitarist and singer Valerie Turner carries on the Piedmont Blues tradition

The landmark Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, celebrates Woman’s Month in March with a range of events to highlight both the celebration and lament of women worldwide, who have come so far but have so far to go to achieve equality and emancipation.

Hats off to Howland Cultural Center director Florence Northcut for more than 25 years, who never misses a beat. This year, the Center featured 33 Hudson Valley women artists in a special art show to commemorate the event and a special music concert ‘Women in the Blues’. One of the visual artists was Virginia based Jackie Merritt, who exhibited two drawings, one a self-portrait, the other a portrait of the artist with her aging mother. Jackie Merritt was the only artist evidently not from the region, but she was made eligible because of her musical performance on Sunday, March 15 as part of the ‘Women in the Blues’ concert sponsored by thecountryblues.com.

This special afternoon concert at the Howland Cultural Center, set up in coffee house style, combined two acoustic blues ensembles that feature women in leading roles, the duo ‘Piedmont Bluz’, of Queens, New York and the ‘MSG Acoustic Blues Trio’, of Virginia and Maryland. The musicians had just played three nights in a row in New York City, the night before they had a packed house in Brooklyn’s famed Jalopy Theater, and this was their fourth gig on this mini-tour. The three primary women joined forces in a songwriter-in-the-round format, mostly playing songs by, for or about women, in an intimate concert where the audience was able to closely interact with the artists.

The change in constellation by combining the two ensembles and placing the women up front, created a new dynamic. The songwriter-in-the-round format shifted their regular paradigm and as the women interchanged and interplayed, their individuality emerged, and the audience was treated to a new ensemble, a new experience. Valerie Turner noted “We don’t know each other’ songs” but in this format, by taking turns and getting support from their partners, the show featured a fascinating set of arrangements. Each woman took on a role and even if subconsciously, the set of individuals formed a group, each with their own set of magic.

The enthralling chanteuse mezmerized the audience

The enthralling chanteuse Resa Gibbs mezmerized the audience

Valerie Turner, of ‘Piedmont Bluz’, was the guitarist and educator of the ensemble. Her smooth and nimble Piedmont guitar, picking with the alternating bass and simultaneous lead string virtuosity, and her lovely singing was supported by her incisive explanations and tutorials. The audience learned about the history of the blues, and the story of each song, with Valerie’s carefully articulated history and insights. She was the student of the late, great Piedmont bluesman John Cephas, and she did him justice with each beautiful rendition of the rich repertoire of the East Coast blues of the African American folk tradition. Valerie Turner is simply one of the finest Piedmont style guitarists today, and every song was a sheer delight. A true virtuoso and a superb artist, her eloquent guitar picking was a sheer delight.

Resa Gibbs, who sat center stage, was the singer. Her amazingly emotive and powerful singing was a moving experience. The multi-instrumentalist held the audience spellbound with her incomparable voice, reaching deep into the roots of African American song heritage, from spirituals to gospel, blues and folk. Her renditions of John Prine’s Angel from Montgomery and the traditional spiritual blues Going to the River were simply awe inspiring and spellbinding, giving the audience the shaking chills. The audience could feel the emotive power of this remarkable singer, as the venue felt as comfortable as a living room. For those who don’t know it, Resa Gibbs is one of the great voices in the traditional blues today. To hear her once is to feel her in the bass string of your soul. Only a heart of stone could sit through her show and not be moved.WomenBlues2

Jackie Merritt, visual artist, musician and teacher, was the songwriter of the group. Her clever compositions, witty lyrics and ability to connect with the audience, the multi-instrumentalist rounded out the ensemble beautifully. Bass ukelele, harmonica, guitar, whatever she touched enhanced the sound, but her greatest contribution were her original songs. As if she was ordered on a sliver platter for Women’s month, Jackie exuded a certain power and inner strength that affected the ensemble in a special way. It was as if she was the source of power, confidence and wisdom. Jackie’s original songs were highlights of the evening: the witty and funny Mean Church People; the sad but true social commentary, Do You See Me Now? about the homeless; and Money Makes You Crazy, an acapella stomp about family fighting over inheritance.

Maryland based guitarist Miles Spicer, bandmate of the ‘MSG Acoustic Blues Trio’ a key member of the Archie Edwards Barbershop scene, tied down the ensemble with his Takamine acoustic guitar, aptly holding rhythm & lead. He is a well known and respected bluesman in and around Washington, D.C. carrying on the Piedmont tradition. On this night he supported his women friends and bandmates with a confident touch, always playing it just right.

Percussionist and washboard player Benedict Turner, who designs and builds some of the nicest washboards anywhere, rounded out the sound of the ensemble as he sat in behind the women with his characteristic gentle touch, never too much, never too little. Ben Turner and his wife Valerie Turner form ‘Piedmont Bluz’, and they are the only performers in this genre combining Piedmont style guitar picking with washboard percussion. An interesting and wonderful combination.

The coffeehouse audience was ecstatic, offering a standing ovation to the ensemble. More than one person declared it an unforgettable concert, not in small part because the musicians put their heart and soul into it.

If you missed this show, don’t despair. There will be another significant ‘Women in the Blues’ concert, also sponsored by thecountryblues.com, coming up at the ArtsWestchester gallery on the evening of Sept. 25, 2015 as part of the White Plains, New York, Jazz & Blues Festival. The above ensemble will be joined by the great acoustic blues artist Eleanor Ellis for that show, and Poughkeepsie based performing artist Poet Gold will be the opener.

The superb singer/songwriter Jackie Merritt

The superb singer/songwriter Jackie MerrittWomenBlues1

vistors

 

Phil Wiggins

Posted on December, 11th 2014 by Frank Matheis in | Comments Off on Phil Wiggins

As published in Living Blues Issue #234 Vol. 45, # 6, December 2014/unedited version by Frank Matheis

Phil Wiggins – On His Own, But Not Alone

Living Blues # 234001To understand Phil Wiggins and his music, you need to understand his home city of Washington, DC. Also known as the “Chocolate City” because it is perhaps the blackest city in America, with the largest population percentage of African Americans, Phil calls it “a Southern town.” Bluesman Bill Harris, known for his pig-hollers and nylon string guitar, the proprietor of the old Pigfoot blues club in Northeast DC, used to affectionately refer to it as “Chocolate City with vanilla suburbs.” During the Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, from the early 20th Century to 1970, the population of Washington, DC exploded as many blacks headed north to seek economic opportunities and escape harsh Jim Crow segregationist laws. Like other large northern cities, the influx of southern rural folks brought along the blues musicians, but unlike Chicago, Memphis and St. Louis, the District of Columbia never developed a comparable electric blues scene and maintained its rural, country blues in the Songster and Piedmont blues traditions of the Mid-Atlantic region.

The Piedmont blues is a gentle and melodic blues style native in the Carolinas and Virginia over to Tennessee, but practiced along the entire mid-Atlantic region. The rich folk tradition in the Piedmont country blues owes much to ragtime, traditional Appalachian Mountain music, African American string music, spirituals and gospel, rural African American dance music, and the early white country music of the 1930s. This blues style is characterized in part by intricate fingerpicking with alternating bass and a simultaneous syncopated melody picked on the treble strings. Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Rev. Gary Davis, and many others along the East Coast made this folk music style famous. Much has been said about the many blind musicians in this region, and the simple explanation is that if you were poor, black and blind in a world that offered you few other opportunities, playing music as a street busker was a way of survival. Posthumously revered, fame eluded most of these players in their lifetime and most lived an existentialist struggle that was not nearly as romantic as modern day blues lore makes it seem.

The status of the Piedmont blues, compared to its famous cousin, the Mississippi Delta blues, is perhaps best exemplified when John Jackson went over to England and was billed as “Mississippi John Jackson.” The mild mannered Virginia native gently protested, “But I’ve never even been to Mississippi,” but apparently the eastern commonwealth was considered so low on the blues-barometer that no self-respecting English promoter could have risked it.

For many blues fans, DC still does not resonate as a major blues center, but this region has historically been a vibrant and powerful source of acoustic blues. This was the home turf of Flora Molton, who used to busk on F-Street in Washington, DC. “Bowling Green” John Cephas came from Virginia, as did the wonderful country blues musician John Jackson. This is where Archie Edwards’ famous barbershop sponsored Saturday afternoon jam sessions. Bill Harris ran the Pigfoot blues club on Rhode Island Ave. in Northeast DC and not far up the road, Dr. Barry Lee Pearson, the “Professor of the Blues” at the University of Maryland, is an ever-present supporter and chronicler. Here, Nat Reese was a pillar of the blues community. Smithsonian-Folkways Records is centered in Washington and the Smithsonian Folklife Festivals have been one of the biggest gatherings of traditional acoustic blues in the world. Great currently active musicians like Eleanor Ellis, Michael Baytop, Michael Roach, Rick Franklin, the MSG trio (Jackie Merrit, Miles Spicer and Resa Gibbs) came out of this nurturing scene, as did Warner Williams and Jay Summerour, another fine harmonica and guitar duo. Musically close, but a bit further north, were “Philadelphia” Jerry Ricks, who was also a Piedmont style player and the unforgettable Blind Connie Williams, a Philadelphia street singer.

One reason for the unprecedented continuation of the acoustic blues in this region has been the willingness of the older generation to carry on the traditions.  Many musicians in the center of the local blues were later teachers at the popular annual blues camp at the nearby Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, a cultural institution of immense importance to the development of folk blues in the region. John Jackson, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Eleanor Ellis and others were all active teachers who taught blues workshops at the Augusta Heritage Center and other programs nationwide; and they all had local students. John Cephas was a founding member of the DC Blues Society, an organization dedicated to preserving traditional blues. This nurturing environment is still one of the most unique in the US acoustic blues today, and has contributed significantly to the progress of this genre in the region. While the blues in other parts of the country waned or became a tourist attraction, the DC blues scene carried on organically, albeit often below the radar.

Another main reason is that there was and is a central meeting point for blues musicians, young and old, black and white, and that was Archie Edwards’ famous barbershop.  DC area bluesman Miles Spicer explains, “Archie Edwards had a barbershop on Bunker Hill Rd. in northeast Washington D.C. from the 1950s until his passing in 1998. On Saturday afternoons he would stop cutting hair, pull out his guitar and play blues in the Piedmont style that he learned during his youth in southwest Virginia. People came from near and far to be a part of the jams held there.”

Perhaps the greatest harmonica and guitar duo in the mid-Atlantic tradition was the duo of Sonny Terry (Saunders Terrell), a blind harmonica player who had previously partnered with Blind Boy Fuller, and Brownie McGhee, a guitar player and singer greatly influenced by Fuller. Their career spanned over four decades to the mid-1970s, peaking at the folk & blues revival of the 1960s when they reached international fame. The guitar & harmonica duo that carried on their tradition, and arguably, the true heirs to this legendary team, were Cephas & Wiggins, “Bowling Green” John Cephas and “Harmonica” Phil Wiggins. Cephas & Wiggins were the premier blues duo over the 33 years since they first connected at the Smithsonian Folklife festival in 1976. Cephas & Wiggins were Alligator Records artists and W.C. Handy award winners. They were fixtures on the festival and workshop circuit as minstrels, teachers, folklorists, storytellers and proponents of the rich African-American folk tradition. Since the passing of John Cephas in 2009, Phil Wiggins has been on his own. This is his story:

Phil Wiggins is a traditional (or natural) harmonica player, who plays only 10-hole diatonic Hohner Marine Band harps, mostly in second, cross-harp position. This style of playing allows the harper to cup both hands around the instrument and play acoustically, the same way people play unamplified on their backporch at home. When on stage, traditional players play a short distance from the microphone, without cupping the mic against the instrument. Traditional players rely only on the sounds they can naturally make with their instrument. They typically don’t carry anything other than a case of harps and don’t care what mic goes through the PA system. Every note is shaped by the hand-cupping and the breath control of the player, not the amp or the mic.

Phil Wiggins is old school, a classic Piedmont style player, but he can play anything, Delta blues, Folk, or whatever, always in the old style of the great harmonica players of the golden era: Jaybird Coleman, Hammie Nixon, DeFord Bailey, and of course, Sonny Terry. “I love Little Walter. My idea from the beginning was to express myself musically. Everybody was copying Little Walter. No wonder. He was a genius. But I just wanted my own sound. I wanted to say what was on my own mind. I have enough ego to think maybe someone will want to copy me.”

Copying Phil, a harmonica player’s harmonica player, will be a tall feat even for the most advanced harpers. His complex syncopated patterns, amazing breath control and rhythm, stylistic virtuosity, and mind-boggling solo runs do not just evoke the great harmonica players of the past, but the pianists that influenced Phil, like Meade Lux Lewis. When in the hands of Phil Wiggins, with his vast arsenal of riffs and lyrical solos, the ignoble little ten-hole harmonica becomes huge, like the noble, respectable piano. “The notes in the melody are all there. They are available,” says Phil Wiggins. He gets down not just the right hand of the piano, but then turns the harp into a percussion instrument, stretching and chugging the rhythm and doing virtual drum solos. Seconds later he turns the little harp into a full fledged horn, picking up on the tone and runs of the clarinet like Pee Wee Russell, or the early jazz trumpet like Willie Gary BunkJohnson.  Dr. Adam Gussow, himself a highly accomplished harmonica player and expert teacher, as well as Professor at the University of Mississippi, shared the sentiment of many harmonica players when he acknowledged, “I wish I could play like that.” Most harp players watch Phil Wiggins with astonishment simply because his virtually limitless virtuosity. He can fire off a sensational, lethally ferocious solo and a second later get into the melody with eloquent sweetness and sensitivity. Every note a siren call for the blues, Phil Wiggins wails with all the little reed instrument can stand, but with pure tenderness. He understands the power of space in his phrasing and timing – at once dramatic and powerful, yet tasteful and beautiful.

Of course, he was informed by the harmonica greats of the past, like Sonny Terry, Rice Miller, Little Walter, Big Walter and Junior Wells. All of those are great, but he didn’t copy their style. He plays own way.

Phil Wiggins is plain spoken and fundamentally kind. If there is ego, in the conventional sense, it is hard to see. He is friendly, but considering that he ranks as one of the most accomplished harmonica players in the world, ego is not inherent in his personality. He’s not a talker, not boastful; rather a good natured, quiet guy who, once he opens up, reveals over time, bit by bit, a keen intelligence and incisive knowledge of not just music, but a general wisdom. Once you get to know Phil, you find a fascinating man, an artist who has reached an impressive level of personal accomplishment, musical virtuosity and life experience.

He has paid his dues 40 years in the center of the east coast acoustic blues, with all the associated fame and existentialist struggles. Yet, there is an inherent sadness in his demeanor, not far below the mellow affability. When he first joined in a duo with John Cephas, John was 25 years his senior. Their long and highly successful partnership lasted until John’s death. During those three decades, they toured the world, produced 13 albums and achieved international acclaim. They played at the White House for the Clintons, won a WC Handy award for Dog Days of August (1986, Flying Fish) and took top billing on the festival circuit. Suddenly, upon John’s passing, Phil had to confront the impermanence of life as he lost his partner with whom he had spent most of his adult life and profession. John Cephas’ death was a dramatic loss for Phil. Mourning for friends and loved ones is difficult, losing a musical duo partner on top of it adds the harsh existentialist reality for a sideman that this means being alone and needing to start over. After John Cephas, Phil partnered with West Virginia bluesman Nat Reese, and soon after in 2012, Nat died as well, again leaving Phil in yet a second mourning and without a duo partner. Shortly thereafter, Phil Wiggins shared with LB “They are all dying on me,” with an unspeakable melancholy and sadness in his tone. Later he explained his process of grieving, “Losing musical partners is not a linear process. It is a cycle. You think you are past it, but it has no beginning and no end.”

“My parents and all the other folks we knew were all from points south. They kept their rural customs. The rules were different than for us first generation Northerners. I was born on Mother’s Day in 1954 in the Washington Hospital Center. My mother had a difficult pregnancy and we both came close to not making it. My mother had this beautiful embroidered nightgown, and that night she heard the other women patients saying, ‘That girl in the pretty nightgown, she’s going to die,’ – but we both made it. It was a miracle.”

“I had a wonderful early childhood in a home filled with music. My father was a cartographer with the Dept. of the Interior and my mother was a homemaker for me and my two brothers and sister. Both my mother and father loved music. My father was a pianist who also sang in the church choir, and his piano records introduced me to the sounds of Fats Waller, Earl “Fatah” Hines and Meade Lux Lewis. I also had a wonderful elementary school teacher who was an early musical influence. Mrs. Brooks. She was a tall black woman who played acoustic guitar. She would play Odetta, Pete Seeger and other folk songs to us. That affected me deeply. My greatest musical influence, however, was my older brother George L. Wiggins, nicknamed “Skip.” H was a guitar player and singer and I looked up to him. When I was seven, we lost our father and we became a half-orphans. My widowed mother later remarried to a military officer. He was a warrior whose stepson wished that warriors were obsolete. With my new stepfather we were transferred to Germany and the family lived on base in Manheim from 1965 to 1969. My first serious musical instrument was the saxophone, which I played in 7th grade in Junior High School. I think that a factor that surely influenced my approach to the harmonica somewhat. I picked the harp up for the first time in the 9th grade. I bent a note by accident and it was like magic… When the family returned to Washington DC in 1969, I got introduced to blues woman Flora Molton, she was a street singer who used to play on the street corner on F-Street in NE Washington, DC, which at the time was a popular shopping district for African Americans, with a wide range of stores within a few blocks. My older sister used to bring a cold drink to Flora and always made point of reaching out to her with kindness. Flora was an almost blind street singer who played in ‘Vastopol’ (open D) using a butter knife handle as a slide. She was a steady fixture in the city and played with a tin cup tied to the headstock. For many years she was a DC institution, and she soon came to the attention of the many folklorists, burgeoning blues pickers and students from Maryland, Virginia and DC. Her influence was great, including on me…By the time I was in high school, I joined the “Folk Club” and played many jam sessions with my older brother Skip. I also took notice of the Smithsonian Folklife Festivals. I also loved church gospel music. I grew up with gospel and spirituals in the church, especially in my grandmother’s neighborhood during childhood summer visits in Titusville, Alabama. On Wednesday night prayer meetings the ladies would sing a cappella call-and-response. This had a deep effect on me. But my blues epiphany came at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the National Mall.  I heard these couple guys sit and play acoustic blues – Johnny Shines, Sam Chatmon, Robert Belfour and Howard Armstrong. They were getting down, playing like it was their own back porch. That’s when I knew– the way they feel is the way I feel. I want to play the blues. I played in an electric blues band from 1970 to ’73, the year I graduated from high school and they year when I backed Flora Molton at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for the first time. Bernice Reagon, the gospel singer and civil rights activist got me into playing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festivals and I am grateful to her to this day for taking a chance on a ragged kid with an Afro way back then. Soon later I played a gig in Alexandria, Virginia, where I met bluesman John Jackson and his wife Cora. I’ll never forget it. He smoked Pall Mall cigarettes and carried a portable ashtray and collapsible cups. I loved the Jacksons. John was a wonderful, kind man and a great influence. He invited me to come and play with him at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, but I didn’t take him seriously. I was so insecure. Later I saw him again and he asked me why I didn’t show up and I realized, wow, it’s real. Soon after, I was connected with the who-is-who of the blues elders in and around DC. At the Folklife festival I met and became friends with Johnny Shines, who told me stories about how the record company executives complained that Johnny sounded too much like Robert Johnson. I’ll never forget hanging out with Johnny Shines. He was an amazing guy with a never-ending set of stories. I was so in awe of him. During that time, blues pianist and singer Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis, an Alabama native who had played with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, had a band in DC called the Barrelhouse Rockers. John Cephas played guitar and James Bellamy was on bass. One night, circa 1975, I joined them for a late night jam session at Childe Herald, a popular music club at the time. Johnny Shines invited me. It was a wild night. Sunnyland Slim was in there and Sonny Rhoades. That night they asked me to sit in.  After that Big Chief” Ellis asked me to join his band. It was my first major career break for me. Now I had found a permanent place as a young harmonica player with a band of established blues elders. We played at festivals all over the east coast, but mostly in and near DC. In 1977, Ellis moved back to Alabama. That’s when John Cephas called to invite me to join in a duo and ‘Cephas & Wiggins’ was born…Me and John both still had day jobs. John Cephas was a union carpenter at the National Guard Armory and I worked in a law office. Initially, we played locally on weekends at clubs and coffeehouses, but soon we came to the attention of the German blues experts Axel Künstner and Horst Lippman, who produced our first album Original Field Recordings Vol.1 Living Country Blues: Bowling Green John and Harmonica Phil Wiggins from Virginia, USA. Horst Lippmann was the producer and promoter of the famed American Folk Blues Festival. He had brought some of the greatest names of the blues over to Europe in the 1960s, and he was greatly influential in introducing the blues to English and mainland European audiences.”

In 1980, not long after the formation of the duo, Axel Künstner, a top jazz and blues music critic in Europe, declared, “Despite his 26 years he can be rated as one of today’s top Blues harp players.” Soon after the new duo made a tour of Germany and Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival and now they were on the map of the international blues community. They played the festival in 1981, along with Archie Edwards, James “Son” Thomas and Carey Bell. In 1982, they were invited back, this time with Sunnyland Slim and Louisiana Red. Their second album Sweet Bitter Blues followed in 1984, and four more in a row, one per year. By the time they were signed to Flying Fish in 1992, they were established, internationally acclaimed stars of the country blues. Their W.C. Handy award for Flip Flop and Fly was icing on the cake.

When Bruce Iglauer signed them to the legendary Alligator label in Chicago, they were a staple on blues radio, ever present on the concert and festival circuit. They had performed worldwide as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department to Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The Kennedy Center sent them to China and Australia, the continent down under where they played several times. In 1988, they even performed at the Russian Folk Festival in Moscow. In Washington, they took the high honor and performed at the White House for President Bill Cinton and his family. The Washington Post review stated, “Remarkable guitar and harmonica duets. Their infectious rhythms and supple melodies combine tasteful fingerpicking with impassioned harmonica solos.” Down Beat said, “Cephas’ rich baritone singing and intricate, refined ragtime fingerpicking are a perfect fit with Wiggins’ rural-blues harmonica stylings.” LB declared “Cephas and Wiggins remain today’s premier Piedmont blues harmonica duo.”

In 1989, John received a National Heritage Fellowship guitar and Award, and after that he was considered a “Living Treasure of American Folk Music” – the highest honor the United States government bestows on a traditional artists. They also had appearances in films. Phil was featured in the cast of the movie Matewon. He had a small but pivotal role playing harmonica along with musicians of different ethnicities in a segregated coal mining camp, a short but symbolically important role showing music as a unifying force. Both musicians also appeared in the stage production of Chewing The Blues and in several documentaries –Blues Country and Houseparty.

Always dressed debonair and immaculately, wearing trademark fedora and Panama hats, they were an imposing musical presence on any stage, with a wide repertoire of traditional blues songs and originals. John Cephas sang with a warm, rich baritone. He fingerpicked his shiny new Taylor guitars, which he proudly fronted as official endorser, with his exquisite Piedmont style. Phil, the much younger sideman, heeded to the blues elder, but it was clear that his incredible talent didn’t just enhance the team – it made the duo. Like any relationship that last decades, it had its complexities and struggles, but they prevailed and persevered, reaching international fame and acclaim. They were fixtures on the blues festival circuit and produced three albums on Flying Fish and three on Alligator, plus a few gems on smaller labels, like the 1993 album on Chesky titled Bluesmen. They enjoyed a fruitful career that lasted until John’s death in 2009. Their brilliant 2008 album Richmond Blues on Smithsonian Folkways was to be their last. John’s life partner, Lynn Volpe, shared that in the last stage of his life, John Cephas said that the years he had spent playing and traveling with Phil were the best years of his life, a sentimental existentialist reflection that was included in his obituary. Their history and music lives on, but life goes on for Phil Wiggins.

Since the death of John Cephas and then Nat Reese, Phil has gigged and toured with a number of musicians, but nothing permanent has emerged. He’s performed several times with Corey Harris, later joining him on the True Blues Tour, with Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis and Shemika Copeland. “I toured Russia with Guy Davis and Samuel James. I really love playing with my longtime friends Eleanor Ellis and Rick Franklin. I also performed with Toby Walker, and Piedmont Bluz, the duo of Valerie Turner on guitar and her husband Ben Turner on washboard. Valerie was a former student of John Cephas and she is one of the fast emerging women in the genre. Lately, I have played with several DC area ensembles, including the all-acoustic swing/roots/blues ‘Chesapeake Sheiks’, with Marcus Moore – violin, Ian Walters-piano, Matt Kelly-guitar and Eric Shramek- bass. My newest band, ‘Phil Wiggins House Party’ is an exciting project that reunites the Piedmont blues with its origins as an African American dance music. The ensemble consists of Rick Franklin on guitar and Marcus Moore on violin. The band features a buck or tap dancer, usually Junious Brickhouse or Baakari Wilder.” Phil often takes the stage alone, telling stories and singing his compositions, or old standards, accompanied by just his harp.

He has taught many hundreds of burgeoning harp players and he actively continues to teach. He is now in his 23rd year as harmonica teacher at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. He was instrumental in getting Blues Week at Augusta started at a time when there was no comparable program in the US. He also teaches at the Fort Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop in Washington State, where he was the artistic director for five years. Plus, he continues to play an active role in the National Council for Traditional Arts. Talk about carrying on the legacy!

Blues scholar Dr. Barry Lee Pearson, Professor at the University of Maryland, has known Phil since 1978, “Phil has amazing auditory capabilities. He can really listen, hear and understand. He knows when to come in and when to lay back. He is an all around musician, someone who goes beyond the surface. Over the years he has developed an uncanny capacity to carry a terrific tone and a remarkable ability to express feeling. He and John Cephas were so tight, they were like one. Now Phil can hold an audience all by himself with his rare talent. He is the source. Phil has a gift to know what works and what makes the song better. He knows how to interact, how to have a musical conversation. The last time I saw him play was in a recording session with Nat Reese before he died. It just tore you up. They stripped the essence of humanity to its bare soul, it was amazing.” The recording that Dr. Pearson is referring to was the last recording session of bluesman Nat Reese with Phil Wiggins, a session that is presently sitting in the vault of a recoding studio. An active effort is now underway to revive this project and to bring it to daylight.

Phil Wiggins is searching, experimenting, and opening up to take his artistry into new directions and, in some small way, emancipating himself from the shadow of having been a sidekick for most of his career. “I haven’t found a replacement for John…maybe I never will. But I am moving forward. I always keep my ears and heart open until I can find the right connection. It was great to play with Corey Harris. Awesome! I also like doing my own music. That’s my priority– to do my own thing – to sing more, to put my own compositions in the forefront. I know that I don’t have a pretty voice like John, but my singing is good. The main thing about singing is telling a story. When I do that, things work out for me. I love storytelling and the people react well to it. They like it. That’s built my confidence to come out more with my own style, my own songs. Where this path will lead is yet undetermined, but I know this: It has been important to me to be understood. Each person hears words according to their life experience and acculturation. For people to understand each other is complex. When people need to communicate and the stakes are extremely high, poetry can happen. The fat and the bullshit are cut away. That’s when the music starts.”

In this, his next music period, we can expect some of his most daring, bravest and most innovative work.

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The writer thanks Bibiana Huang Matheis, Lynn Volpe, Dr. Barry Lee Pearson, Dr. Adam Gussow, and all photographic contributors.

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Will the Acoustic Blues Survive?

Posted on April, 6th 2014 by Frank Matheis in General | Comments (0)

by Frank Matheis, publisher,  2014

The good news is that there are still at least 500 or so musicians actively performing the acoustic blues today, many (if not most) of them listed here in thecountryblues.com. The acoustic blues is still alive and well in the 21st Century.

For those of us who love this music that’s a hopeful sign, but undeniably, the existentialist facts are not so rosy for the long term survival of acoustic/folk/country blues.

Let’s start with the good news…

Plenty of musicians are still able to make a living playing the old time blues. Many of the musicians who were the disciples of the great originals, who learned directly from the blues musicians who reemerged during the 1960s and 70s, and who picked up the styles, tuning and songs as apprentices from the old masters, are still active and successful today. Indeed, now they are the blues elders: Taj Mahal, John Hammond, Paul Geremia, Doug MacLeod, Phil Wiggins, Roy Bookbinder, Jorma Kaukonen, on and on. Then, there are the guitar virtuosos, the supreme guitarists of the genre, with a broad repertoire of folk/roots styles: Ry Cooder (when he is in a blues mood), Woody Mann, Ed Gerhardt, Mike Dowling, and many more.

There is a core group of excellent African-American players who have achieved wide ranging success and who carry on the blues tradition internationally: Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, Keb Mo, Otis Taylor, Phil Wiggins and Samuel James. Some wonderful younger players are infusing new blood into the scene, including the new blues sensation Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, the MSG Blues Trio and Valerie & Ben Turner

The blues women are as powerful as ever, thanks to Shemika Copeland, Rory Block, Valerie Turner, Maria Muldaur, Mary Flower, Valerie June, Emily Druce, Eleanor Ellis, Janiwa Magness and many more.

Plus, there are wonderful players all over Europe, and increasingly, even Asia, in Japan and even in Pakistan.

There are great records being produced, concert halls and clubs filled by the musicians who are keeping the acoustic blues flames burning . Blues Festivals still draw a good crowd and acoustic blues is still a small but steady portion of this. There is also still a fascination and strong interest in the acoustic blues over in Europe. Many American players regularly tour the continent and rely on that market as an important source of income.

Yet, the genre’s very survival, in the long term, is challenged.

The audience demographic is aging and there has not been significant interest among the younger generation to infuse new enthusiasm into the genre. The baby-boomers of the 1960s and 70s who formed the first ‘folk & blues revival’ that gave a second wind to an entire set of blues musicians, are by now in their late 50s and up. With plenty of attrition and no considerable influx of new audiences, the currently active musicians are reporting a decline in listeners. Unless there is a resurgence of interest, a new blues revival or a sudden shift in the wind of popular music, it is likely that the core audience of today is the last and that the acoustic blues will experience a decline after this generation.

There has been only a tiny black audience for the acoustic blues, even during the heyday of the 1960s blues revival, and today its is minuscule, almost down to the angstrom. African-American audiences left the genre decades ago, except in a few pockets in the Deep South. Most acoustic blues fans today are white men over fifty – many in their sixties and seventies. The counterculture baby boomers are aging and they are buying less music and going out to hear live music less.

Radio is no salvation. The deep roots acoustic blues is virtually shut out of the radio. You’ll hear a fews classics here and there, but the picture is bleak in the syndicated shows, satellite radio blues shows and even the independent DJs focus mostly on electric blues and blues rock.

Blues record labels also report that sales of acoustic blues are so sluggish and weak that they are reluctant to sign folk blues acts. Alligator, for example, once signed Corey Harris and Cephas & Wiggins, but now shies away from country blues acts due to lackluster sales. Consequently, musicians are increasingly self-producing their recordings, with mixed results. Some very excellent musicians are churning out poorly produced, lackluster albums, often in studios that do not understand or know how to record acoustic music. The market is flooded with self-produced albums that never really get off the ground. Sadly, today this is the norm for many struggling and upcoming artists, because few “not yet famous” acoustic country blues artists have the financial backing to be able to afford a professionally produced album where everything is done right. Even in cases where everything is played and recorded perfectly well, many “good” albums simply lack the energy, fire and passionate intensity of the early blues, or those produced in the 1960s and 70s, when record labels still had an interest in the country blues.

The blues today maybe the only profession in America where it is a distinct advantage to be a black man – and of course that speaks volumes about the plight of black men in America today, still struggling for equality – and worst than that, still struggling against racial stereotypes and injustice. Blues is an African-American cultural contribution to the world, a black musical form and an inherent part of the African-American experience. Yet, black musicians can feel a form of estrangement as this music which had its origins in the black experience is now in a white dominated world. The blues press, blues forums, record labels and radio DJs are predominately white (including this writer) – as is the audience. Even the one blues magazine devoted to the preservation of the African American legacy, Living Blues, is drastically underrepresented by African American writers and critics. The blues academia, the professors of the blues, the book authors, all mostly white. No wonder that black blues musicians want to hold on to the fact that they are, indeed, the authentic cultural heirs to the blues. These are legitimate grievances of black musicians.

Yet, like any successful cultural phenomena, the blues is now international, a cultural triumph that should be celebrated and a source of pride. Blues has circumnavigated the globe, just like jazz, rock & roll and Classical music, Many people from all over the world play, feel and love the blues. This is not cultural theft, as some like to call it, but it is a natural aspect of the powerful international cultural contribution of African-Americans. The blues is a musical form that has been integrated from the time of Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang (even if only behind the scenes). Musicians broke the color barrier, played together and learned each other’s music, maybe not openly when oppressed by Jim Crow laws, but certainly they hooked up and sat in with each other when possible. This is evident by the wide ranging repertoire of the Piedmont songsters, for example, which drew from ragtime, Country, Appalachian Mountain music, blues, gospel and even European folk songs. Music was always the true melting pot.

Today some people talk about “true blues,” not how the music is played, but by the authenticity of the music based on the skin color or the performer. This is simply wrong in the blues as anywhere in life. Music should be a unifying force, and not a reason to judge human beings by the color of their skin.

Ostensibly, a threat to the very survival of the genre may be those who profess to know and love it the most. Admittedly, that seems like a bizarre statement. Because the acoustic blues is a very small world compared to electric blues, and the blues overall is a very small segment of the popular music culture, you would think that the genre’s survival will be carried by the true fans, the blues aficionados, the most devoted acoustic blues fans. The problem is that a sizable portion of the acoustic, folk and country blues fans only love the original old blues, and tend to dismiss the new purveyors of the musical form. Of course, people can like what they want to like. Nothing wrong with that. If people enjoy only the blues of the golden era (1920s-1930s) played exactly as it was in the original 78 rpm recordings, that’s perfectly fine. We love that music ! Otherwise those songs would wither on the vine. The only way people will know and love the blues is to cherish the legacy. Everybody has a right to like and listen to what they want.

The problem comes in when the fans of the old blues don’t love, and even reject, the new blues for whatever reason. If the celebration of the past comes with the rejection of the present, there is a logically risk that there will be no future, just cultural extinction, that the music they love will simply be locked into a time capsule in a museum or in the Library of Congress.

At its worst, some hardcore blues purists dismiss contemporary players as “mere imitators” or they question where an acoustic blues musician is from (I recently read a very misguided review of the new John Hammond record where the writer claimed that John sounds “like a New York musician copying the Southern blues”); what the skin color is ; or, they categorically attack anyone who changes the music even slightly. Scathing criticism is reserved for those who don’t play it note for note as it was played 70 years ago on the original 78 rm records. The level of criticism holds no boundaries.

This phenomena among acoustic blues audiences seems to be unique in contemporary American roots & folk music. Bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, Celtic-American, Polka, Tex-Mex and many other roots music forms are going strong, in large part because the audiences may cherish the past but celebrate the present. Bluegrass audiences may love Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs, but they love and support the young players on the scene today. In Zydeco, everybody cherishes Clifton Chenier, but they still turn out for the new generation.

So there it is, pure common sense. Unless the blues can progress, stay vibrant and relevant today, there may be no folk and country blues in the next generation, given the demographic reality. To preserve the old blues, we need new blues – new songs, new songwriters, new interpretations, new sounds along with the originals. If we can swing that, the acoustic blues has a fleeting chance. Hopefully, folks will see that this is the point of this website.

Please check out the musicians listed here, both in the Who is Who directory, and in the full profile section here.  The acoustic blues today may be summoned up by an old song lyric by Johnny Winter:

So everyone will know

I’m still alive and well

I’m still alive and well every now and then 

its kind of hard

To tell I’m still alive and well

 

Shelton “Kotton” Powe Jr.

Posted on December, 24th 2013 by Frank Matheis in | Comments Off on Shelton “Kotton” Powe Jr.

559sheltom“Nobody will get rich playing the traditional blues, but that’s what I chose to do,” laments Shelton Powe, who recently started to go by the name of Kotton Powe. He’s seen his share of troubles and knows the meaning of the literal blues, for example, he lost his home to the IRS. There is plenty to sing about. He’s not the only one among the traditional musicians who are struggling. Very few deep roots blues musicians today are able to make a living without a day job, and most that manage it barely scrape by. Nobody will claim that the truehearted acoustic country blues musicians in the 21st Century have an easy time of it. Yet, somehow, their devotion to the genre is unshakeable. Shelton Powe has the blues deep down in his soul. In some ways, he is the blues. Yet, in an existentialist paradox, the bard would rather be free from the blues, as he sees it, “I wish there was no blues. I wish the conditions it came out of had never been. The poverty. The racism. The hardship. If people had a choice, they wouldn’t live like that.”

Some places are just better for blues musicians getting work than others. Perhaps, if he was in Mississippi , he would be more famous.  The musicians on or near the Blues Trail from Memphis down to New Orleans at least have the benefit of an interested cadre of blues tourists, who flock to the pilgrimage and seek out any remaining blues artists in the local venues. Perhaps, he would come to the attention of the Europeans who are still actively seeking out the authentic blues, before it all gets lost forever. Shelton Powe is actively using the social media internet to get his name out far and wide. You can find him on Facebook and YouTube and he is casting a wide net. Yet, the Music Maker artist is mostly an unsung proponent of the deep roots folk blues who deserves greater recognition. Still, he is getting there. Not long ago he had a major feature in Living Blues, so things are going in the right direction.

The East Coast, with its rich Piedmont blues tradition, still carries plenty of great practitioners of this lovely blues style. The golden era of the 1920s and 30s forged an important groove in the formation of the acoustic blues. The fingerpicking Piedmont style is rooted in gospel, folk, blues and ragtime. We lost many great proponents of the country blues in the post-folk revival period: Philadelhia Jerry Ricks, John Jackson, John Cephas, Doc Watson, Nat Reese and many more. Yet, while not necessarily Piedmont players, acoustic blues stars Corey Harris and Guy Davis are on the East Coast. The Piedmont scene today includes Phil Wiggins, Eleanor Ellis and up and coming players like Valerie and Ben Turner and Jeff Scott, the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio, and Rick Franklin, among others. Count Shelton Powe among these traditional players.

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He is plays the real true folk blues – basic, ethereal, gritty, emotive and sincere – a fine fingerpicking guitarist and rudimentary harmonica player. Like many of the East Coast Piedmont players before him, his first musical experience comes from church and family. He sang in the church choir and was exposed to the entire spectrum of African American music, with the entire family full of gospel singers

Shelton Powe was born in Charlotte and raised in Winston/Salem, North Carolina. For a time he lived on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and he now makes his home in Atlanta, Georgia. Despite the long tradition of Georgia blues in the golden era, Atlanta is not a blues town nowadays. If Shelton Powe lived in Mississippi, he might be better known…perhaps on the radar of the European audiences who are still devoted to African American deep roots blues.

When there was still a vibrant blues scene in Atlanta, he hung out and learned from the likes of Cora Mae Bryant, Neal Pattman, Cootie Stark and Frank Edwards.

As of now, he has but one album on the Music maker label “Carolina Blues and Gospel,” a nice collection of blues, gospel and ditties. It would be great to see him on tour, at summer festivals and with more CDs to offer the world, but for now at least see his YouTube videos.

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M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio

Posted on March, 4th 2013 by Frank Matheis in Artist Reviews | Comments (0)

The cool Piedmont ensemble the M.S.G. Acoustic Blues trio has a new review. Read it here. The YouTube video is coming soon.

M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio

Posted on March, 4th 2013 by Frank Matheis in | Comments Off on M.S.G. Acoustic Blues Trio
MSG Acoustic Blues Trio at Archie's Barbershop, Nov. 2014

MSG Acoustic Blues Trio at Archie’s Barbershop, Nov. 2014

This was the home turf of Flora Molton, who used to busk on H-Street in Washington, DC. “Bowling Green” John Cephas came from Virginia, as did the wonderful John Jackson. This is where John Cephas and Phil Wiggins hooked up in 1976 and where Archie Edwards’ famous barbershop became a center of the acoustic blues scene. Bill Harris ran the Pigfoot blues club on Rhode Island Ave. in Washington DC and not far up the road, Barry Lee Pearson is a “Professor of the Blues” at the University of Maryland. Here, Nat Reese was a pillar of the blues community. Smithsonian-Folkways is centered in Washington and their Folk Festivals have been one of the biggest gatherings of traditional acoustic blues in the world. Great musicians like Eleanor Ellis, Michael Baytop, and Rick Franklin come out of this scene, as did Warner Williams and Jay Summerour. Musically close, but a bit further north, was “Philadelphia” Jerry Ricks, who was also a Piedmont style player.

One reason for the unprecedented continuation of the acoustic blues in this region has been the willingness of the older generation to carry on the traditions. Many were students, and later teachers, at the annual blues camp at the nearby Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. John Jackson, John Cephas, Phil Wiggins, Gaye Adegbalola, Eleanor Ellis and others were all active teachers who participated in blues workshops nationwide and had local students. This nurturing environment is one of the most unique in the acoustic blues today, and has contributed significantly to the progress of this genre in the region.

Another main reason is that there was and is a central meeting point, a place to join with kindred spirits, and that was Archie Edwards famous barbershop.

Miles Spicer explains: Archie Edwards had a barbershop on Bunker Hill Rd. in northeast Washington D.C. from the 1950s until his passing in 1998. On Saturday afternoons he would stop cutting hair, pull out his guitar and play blues in the Piedmont Style that he learned during his youth in southwest Virginia. People came from near and far to be a part of the jams held there. The Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation was created in 1998 to perpetuate Archie’s legacy and to keep the jams going. In the 15 years that followed the foundation has held workshops and concerts by professional acoustic blues musicians and kept the jams going. While the original site in Washington D.C. is now a dentists office; the organization found suitable space in nearby Riverdale Park, MD. Our new space has a museum area that displays artifacts from the original shop and Archie’s Barber chair. “The babershop”, as is still called, is a great place to learn about this music. As we have grown an increasing number of workshops and concerts are held there. Jams are still held there every Saturday afternoon. And just like during Archies’ time you never know who is going to show up. Visitors come from all over the country and the world. For more information about the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation check out website at www.acousticblues.com.

Miles Spicer, the MSG trio’s Piedmont fingerpicking guitarist who plays a Tacoma parlor sized guitar, an unusual choice for a bluesman, was a student of DC blues picker Michael Baytop. Mike Baytop is founder and president of The AEBHF and studied from Archie Edwards himself. The trio includes Resa Gibbs who sings and plays percussion and Jackie Merritt who sings, plays harmonica and bass. The MSG trio is unique in that it is one of the few, maybe the only, contemporary blues trio fronting two women. The trio is semi-pro, meaning they all have professional day jobs, which is a wise move for folks who are on one hand dedicated to their muse, yet have personal obligations and careers. As such, they have stayed regional and have not toured extensively, although their musicianship and musical vibe is simply wonderful. They are ready for prime time in every way and have played the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in Bristol, Tenn/VA., the Bluebird Blues Festival in Landover, MD, The Bull Durham Blues Festival in Durham, NC, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Artscape in Baltimore, MD and the Bayou Boogaloo in Norfolk, VA. They have also played the prestigious Kennedy Center Millennium stage.

This ensemble plays a heartwarming repertoire of both traditional and original acoustic blues, gentle, lighthearted and with feeling. They reach way back to the spirituals, to gospel, all with a true folk blues, back porch feeling. Evidently, these musicians do this for fun and that they love what they do, and that clear comes through in the music. Miles Spicer expressed their approach to music with, “Grace, bliss, hope, joy,” uplifting qualities that regular folks normally don’t associate with the blues, but which blues fans know to be true. “We love what we do. We are honored to carry on traditions. We hope that the love we have for the music and for each other, is obvious and infectious.”

The result is music that is emotive, moving, wonderfully executed and deep in its roots.

One of their important contributions is education about African-American musical traditions. They don’t just entertain, they carry on traditions, tell stories and share their knowledge with new audiences and they are active with Young Audiences of Virginia, where they teach “Blues in the Schools” throughout the state.

The multitalented, multi-instrumentalist Jackie Merritt, who is deeply influenced by Elizabeth Cotten, plays harmonica, guitar, bass and she taps bones (a percussion technique when bones or spoons are clapped). She started harmonica late in life with her musical passion, and she teaches painting and drawing at a local community college. Phil Wiggins, who is by now an elder of the local music scene, was an inspiration and her harmonica teacher. Besides her dual activities as a visual and musical artist, Jackie Merritt is one of the founding members of the Natchel’ Blues Network, an organization formed in 1984 to advance blues by sponsoring concerts, workshops and other events in the Hampton Roads region. Jackie with the help of NBN, formed the Annual Hampton Acoustic Blues Revival, now in its 12th year, to showcase acoustic blues. When John Cephas passed in 2009, she changed the name to the Annual Hampton Acoustic Blues Revival “A Tribute to John Cephas”. “I am just blessed where I am in my life right now,” said Jackie Merritt to thecountryblues.com.

Last but not least is the trio’s remarkable lead singer, the golden voiced Resa Gibbs –lead vocalist and percussionist. She perfectly rounds out the ensemble with her rich, powerful and soulful singing. Resa is a physical therapist by day and a musician by night. She is a vocal instructor who teaches occasionally at the prestigious Country Blues Workshops at Centrum, in Port Townsend, WA. She was also a singer on Gaye Adegbalola’s Bitter Sweet Blues CD, produced by Rory Block and recorded by Alligator Records, and many other high profile projects. Resa Gibbs also plays percussion and washboard, but her greatest contribution is her wonderful, soulful singing, the type of voice that will give you the goose bumps and shakes you up inside.

Together, these fine folks are the direct heirs to the great Piedmont Blues tradition. They have multiple recordings available.

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Valerie & Ben Turner (Piedmont Bluz)

Posted on January, 6th 2013 by Frank Matheis in | Comments Off on Valerie & Ben Turner (Piedmont Bluz)

Piedmont Bluz

Piedmont Bluz – The True Blues of the Gentle Duo of Valerie and Benedict Turner

By Frank Matheis as published in Living Blues magazine #239. October 2015

 The blues gets little respect in the mainstream media today, relegated to a small slice of the music market. Among people who don’t know or understand blues music, some criticize the genre as monotone and repetitive. The popular tendency among the uninformed is to equate it with loud, guitar intensive rock-blues, or the theatrical Blues Brothers clichés. Even among blues fans, electric bands dominate, and the traditional, acoustic country blues has waned. Acoustic blues, the old traditional music, is revered by a tiny audience of loyal, but aging, fans. Even among these aficionados, the Piedmont blues, the gentle and melodic blues style played along the eastern coast of the United States, takes a backseat to the more popular Mississippi Delta Blues. So, what’s an acoustic duo playing down-home Piedmont blues to do?

Meet Valerie Turner, who is perhaps the gentlest of the acoustic players, the antithesis of almost every blues stereotype. Think heir to the legacy of Etta Baker or Elizabeth Cotten—but “city folk” with a college degree from a top tier university. Valerie is from the unlikely blues milieu of Queens, New York, and she proudly stands for one thing: the old-fashioned, acoustic Piedmont blues. Together with her husband Benedict Turner, their duo is aptly named Piedmont Bluz. While still relatively unknown outside of the New York / Washington, D.C. scene, their career is just ascending, and they are worth knowing. Hear this duo’s unique approach to the historical repertoire of the region, and it becomes evident that Valerie Turner is one of this important folk blues sub-genre’s most eloquent proponents.

The Piedmont Bluz duo shatters blues clichés. They debonair duo are educated, professionally successful African Americans who live in a beautiful Tudor house in an upscale neighborhood of Queens, New York. She gave up a successful career in information technology to devote herself full time to old time country blues, while Ben is a competitive speed skater who has represented the United States in international races, is a professional graphic artist and art director, as well as a designer and builder of magnificent washboards. He is a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where he studied visual merchandising, advertising and graphic design. He is never seen without a vest, tie and jacket and his trademark hat, while Valerie makes her own lovely dresses.

Valerie may be aware of her dual identity as an African American woman playing country blues, but she consciously transcends those roles. She explained, “It’s not just that I don’t look at myself as a female blues musician. I don’t look at myself as a black blues musician. I just look at myself as a blues musician—no race, no gender, no religion—no nothing. I think that it has a lot to do with how I was raised, because to be honest all the jobs that I’ve held, I’ve been sometimes the only woman there, or sometimes one of very few women. Certainly almost always the only black person, or maybe one of two black people in an entire department. This has been my career in the computer science field. This is how it was when I went to school, from kindergarten on up through college. So it’s become very normal for me I guess, to disassociate from an external identity that people see. You know, when people meet you, they look at you, they know your gender, they know your race. But, I don’t see these things because it would have been very harmful for me to think of myself in that way throughout my life, whether it was in school or at work . . . Look, in the beginning blues music was acoustic and it was primarily played by African Americans. If you look at today’s blues scene you’ll notice that it’s gone electric and that African Americans are not as involved as before. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with change, I feel that it’s important to preserve the acoustic quality of the music. I’m disheartened by the lack of support it receives from the African American community. It’s our hope—both Ben’s and mine—that others in our community will be intrigued by seeing Ben and I perform, become inspired to learn more about the music, and perhaps support it by coming out to more concerts.”

Valerie and Ben Turner. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

Valerie and Ben Turner. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

Valerie Turner’s fingerpicking is exquisite, done mostly on her vintage 1929 Stella parlor guitar, and a fancy Taylor 915-C that used to be owned by her mentor and teacher John Cephas. She also carries along a recent model National Style N made out of nickel-plated brass. Lately, she’s added a 5-string, open-back 1897 Fairbanks banjo to her arsenal. Valerie reminisced, “From hanging around at the Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn, I was exposed to a lot of banjo players. I heard Jerron Paxton playing a banjo, I saw Hubby Jenkins. I ran across Dom Flemons, and I said, ‘Wow, look at all these great guys playing the banjo. And it sounds so incredible.’ So that really drew me in . . . I was looking for a banjo that spoke to me, and I found this one on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village at Matt Umanov’s music store. It was sitting on the floor and was really dusty, and it didn’t look as though anyone had touched it for quite some time. But I was really just emotionally drawn to that instrument, and without even hearing how it sounded I knew that that was my banjo. I loved the sound of it. And that’s the one I walked out the door with.”

Her husband Benedict Turner plays percussion on his self-designed and built washboards, which he plays lap style with brushes and sticks, and he occasionally accompanies Valerie on harmonica. Piedmont Bluz is taking on the world with absolute love and devotion to this sub-genre as performers and dedicated preservationists. Valerie explained, “I simply think of myself as a musician who cares about the Piedmont blues music very much and I want to see it grow and to be preserved. Our mission is to help keep this music going and to not let it die out. So when we perform, we like to present each piece with a brief description of either the song or its original composer or the timeframe in which it was written. This is our way of helping to preserve the music. Without fail, after each gig, people tell us how much they enjoy hearing a bit of history along with the music—how much they learned and they thank us.”

A graduate of the prestigious New York University, Valerie speaks deliberately and clearly, explaining that the Piedmont blues, named after the region between the Appalachians and the tidewater of the Atlantic, is native in the Carolinas and Virginia over to Tennessee, but practiced along the entire mid-Atlantic region. The rich folk tradition in the Piedmont country blues owes much to ragtime, traditional Appalachian Mountain music, African American string music, spirituals and gospel, rural African American dance music, and the early white country music of the 1930s. This blues style features intricate fingerpicking with alternating bass and a simultaneous syncopated melody picked on the treble strings. Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Rev. Gary Davis and many others along the East Coast made this music style famous.

Valerie continues the tradition not just in spirit but in style. “There are people like Etta Baker, for example,” she says, “I admire her fingerpicking very much, as well as I admire Elizabeth Cotten and Memphis Minnie. Certainly there are some contemporary women that I do listen to and admire as well. People like Del Rey and Mary Flower. In some ways I admire Rory Block for being a real trailblazer. And, of course Eleanor Ellis, who has that beautiful, lilting Louisiana style singing that really tickles me every time I hear her. She has certainly been around for a very long while very active in the Virginia/D.C./Maryland area.” Valerie has maintained the emphasis on refining her fingerpicking skill. Unlike most acoustic blues players, she never gets loud and rhythmic, never launches an aggressive power-attack or a brash solo. In her style it’s all about the finger dancing, the alternating bass line while picking the syncopated melody down on the treble strings.

Ben and Valerie Turner. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

Ben and Valerie Turner. Photo by Frank Matheis 2017.

While she may be a native New Yorker, Valerie has deep Southern roots, like many African American city dwellers: “My father was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and moved north to New York City with his mother as part of the Great Migration of African Americans. My mother never knew her parents, but we know from her birth certificate that they were both from Virginia. Through my two parents—one hailing from Virginia and the other from Georgia—I believe I’ve got the entire Piedmont region covered. We listened to a wide variety of music at home. My father loved jazz and classical music, while my mother enjoyed a little of everything, but especially calypso music. She played a little piano and used to sing to us all the time—mostly Negro spirituals, songs like Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen—things like that. But she also threw in other songs like Shortnin’ Bread, Cotton Fields and Goodnight, Irene, which explains why I came across some Lead Belly albums in her collection after she passed away. She also liked to recite poetry, mostly Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.” Her primary inspiration, however, was not even from the Piedmont region. When asked to define her own sound, Valerie replied, “Oh, I’d tell you I sound probably a lot like Mississippi John Hurt. He was my entrée into this type of music. His music has by far influenced and inspired me more so than anyone else. It’s his music that I was attempting to learn when I first started in about 1980.”

Valerie Turner has made her mentors proud. Piedmont blues master John Cephas told his close friend Lynn Volpe that he considered Valerie as his star student, the one who would carry on his legacy. Valerie spoke of her teachers: “I’ve been very fortunate to have had so many talented teachers and mentors. To list them would be really exhaustive. But, I would say that my two main influences were John Cephas and Woody Mann. From John Cephas I really got a good feel for the music. He made me feel the great importance of helping to preserve [the Piedmont blues], helping to keep it alive. From Woody, I got a lot of technical information. I learned to refine techniques. I learned theory. Between the two of them they really expanded my repertoire enormously. Ben and I have both been very fortunate to have had so many talented teachers and mentors. Their guidance and advice have been priceless. Phil Wiggins really stands out. After John Cephas passed away, Phil became very present in our lives. We hadn’t interacted with him that much prior to then. And he’s a huge talent, as you know. From giving us constructive advice to giving us increasingly challenging opportunities, Phil has mentored us in more ways than we can count. To have that kind of relationship with someone so key in the acoustic blues scene has been a great blessing.”

Piedmont Bluz is the only duo in this genre that combines the washboard with guitar as a permanent fixture. Ben explained how he began playing the washboard: “One day I found a washboard in an antique shop in Vermont and brought it home. I just thought it was interesting, especially after hearing Jay Summerour play the washboard at a show that they did in Maryland with Rick Franklin. The following week, Valerie had me on stage playing along with her. That started my career as a musician, because prior to that I had no experience . . . Musically, the way I play is I try to complement whatever Valerie is playing. I have different types of washboards and they all have their own personalities. Depending on what song Valerie is playing determines the washboard that I play, to softly and nicely complement her. The washboard is very loud and people assume that you play the traditional Zydeco style. That’s not me.ˮ He elaborated, “I met Newman Taylor Baker—he often plays with the Ebony Hillbillies—and I liked his general style and overall approach to percussion. Aside from being great musicians, the Ebony Hillbillies are really down to earth and sometimes at gigs we would look up and they’d be sitting in the audience, and occasionally they would even join in with us on the spur of the moment, lending their talents and energy to our performance. After creating my first washboard I was inspired to create others, and that led to creating my own kind of custom washboards called ‘Darlington,’ which is actually my middle name. I curate vintage washboards and bells from all over the world and use these parts to create my works of art, which includes carvings and sculpted attachments. Each one is unique . . . My parents are from Grenada and Trinidad, and I was born in a town called Laventille, in the northwest corner of the island Trinidad. Laventille is the birthplace of the steel drum which is both melodic and percussive, and very prominent in the Calypso music that I grew up listening to. I come from a small family with just one sister and we all immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1970s to find a better life. My parents were very hardworking people and a great inspiration to me. My father and mother both worked long hours, which gave them little time to enjoy with us, but we passed much of the time we spent together listening to all kinds of music, including music from my native Trinidad. Those rhythms are ingrained in me and have undoubtedly helped me with washboard.”

Valerie’s transition to musician was equally unconventional: “When I began elementary school, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were in full swing. Those were interesting times. My mother, an elementary school teacher, worked days while my father, a railroad clerk, worked nights. I went to public elementary, public junior high school, public high school. The City University was the first college I attended, Queens College. I then moved on to New York University . . . [where] I studied information technology. That was the field that I stayed in for about 25 years in various capacities including computer programmer, systems analyst and business analyst. Having done that for so long, I really wanted to make room in my life for something that for me would have a more personal meaning, to play music full time . . . I got my first stringed instrument, a toy ukulele, as a birthday gift at the age of five and taught myself to play simple songs. Other instruments followed, but the ukulele was always my favorite. As I got older, I saved my allowance and eventually purchased my first guitar from Times Square Stores. It was $19.99 and I still have it. My parents paid the music teacher at my mother’s school, Mr. Anderson, to come over on Saturday mornings to teach me. He got $5 and all he could eat for breakfast! We were working through the Mel Bay series when he decided to teach a lesson by ear. Well, that was the official end of the Mel Bay books for me! Learning by ear was easier and faster for me while reading music felt extremely tedious. My interest in the guitar was rekindled when I came across Stefan Grossman’s Country Blues Guitar book. That book introduced me to a fascinating world of music that still inspires me. I worked at it on my own for a while but decided to look for a teacher, so I scanned the Village Voice and called all the music teachers listed. My only question for them was, ‘Do you know who Mississippi John Hurt is?’ Only one teacher knew who I was talking about. He said, ‘Not only do I know who he is, I can teach you some of his songs.’ That man was Jack Baker of the Fretted Instruments School of Guitar and Banjo. I took a series of lessons from him where he corrected my fingering, taught me how to read tablature and taught me a few songs. After I felt comfortable reading tablature, I worked things out on my own, and I stopped going to Jack for lessons. Instead, I worked with material from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. However, I still wasn’t committed to playing guitar and I’d put it down for years at a time. Each time I picked it up, it felt like I was starting from square one again. In 2003, I finally made a decision to stick with it and that’s when I reached out and found John Cephas. He suggested that I meet him at International Guitar Seminars at Columbia University. Co-directed by Woody Mann and Trevor Laurence, it was the first time that I’d ever been immersed in an environment dedicated to learning to play blues guitar. I eventually met Stefan Grossman, author of The Country Blues Guitar book that started my journey. These days, I am very pleased to have opportunities to help preserve this beautiful music by performing and teaching.”

Piedmont Bluz is returning the favor and has taught workshops at the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation and at Centrumʼs 2015 Acoustic Blues Festival in Port Townsend, Washington. Valerie also teaches students via Skype, and she is working on a music book for beginners.

Despite the duoʼs success, Valerie had a difficult time with stage fright in the early years. Even though today she is poised, articulate, and seemingly in command of the stage, it was a struggle that took her years to overcome: “Yes, performance anxiety is a very debilitating thing. If I knew that I had to perform a week in advance I would be tied up in knots internally for an entire week. If I knew two weeks in advance, I’d be tied up in knots for two weeks. From morning to night it’s all I would be thinking about, is what’s going to happen: Am I going to be okay? Am I going to make one mistake or ten mistakes? Is the audience going to like me? All these questions would just whirl around in my head, and it’s very debilitating. I was stuck in that mode for quite a long time until I spent a solid week making sure that I had somewhere to perform each and every night during that week. The first night, it was horrible. The performance wasn’t horrible, but the way I felt going into it was horrible . . . The best advice I ever got on this topic—of how to be on stage, because he struggled with that as well—came from Phil Wiggins. Phil’s advice was very simple. He said, ‘Valerie, just be yourself.’ From that point on I stopped worrying about the fact that most of my contemporaries seemed to use fingerpicks and have a really aggressive attack. I began to appreciate my softer style, and it’s been working well. It keeps me calm when I’m performing. In fact, people often contact us, about once every other week, and tell us how much they enjoy hearing a less intense approach. Phil Wiggins was very helpful in that regard.”

Piedmont Bluz does not yet have a professionally produced recording on the market, but that will soon come. Their star is rising and they are now getting international attention and have just been invited to a major folk festival in Israel. Stateside, they are getting into bigger festivals and prestigious venues, including the Brooklyn Folk Festival; the Connecticut Folk Festival; the John Cephas Piedmont Blues Festival in Bowling Green, Virginia; Clearwaterʼs Great Hudson River Revival festival; the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan and, of course, the center of New York folk blues scene, the famous Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn. In September 2015 they are booked to play at the ArtsWestchester Gallery for Jazz Fest in White Plains, New York, as part of a “Women of Piedmont Blues” concert, along with Eleanor Ellis, Jackie Merritt and Resa Gibbs.

When asked the question of how she would like to be remembered, Valerie Turner was as articulate and accurate as ever, “Valerie Turner carries on the legacy with a very eclectic repertoire that represented a good cross section of early blues musicians, and that she played their music with a lot of heart, with a lot of feeling, with a lot of love.”

A lot of love, indeed.

Update Feb. 2017. Since this article was published in Living Blues magazine the duo has made quite a bit of progress:

Valerie has been actively teaching at Centrum, Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival (2015, 2016), Augusta, Blues & Swing Week (2016, 2017)
and Menucha, Blues in the Gorge (2017). The duo toured internationally to Israel (2015), Spain (2015), Ireland (2016), Germany (2016)
Ben’s Darlington Washboards, his artistic line of custom made, musical washboards, are now played Newman Taylor Baker of the Ebony Hillbillies and Resa Gibbs of the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio, among others. They released their debut CD – Country Blues Selections (2015).
Valerie is actively working hard on her forthcoming book- Piedmont Style Country Blues Guitar Basics (to be published in 2017). Valerie started playing the banjo and Ben started playing bones, and learning how to make bones from Jim Lande of the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation.
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Andy Cohen

Posted on August, 28th 2011 by Frank Matheis in | Comments Off on Andy Cohen

Once upon a time, there was a young white guy with a Masters in Anthro-pology from Kent State University in Ohio who decided that a typical 9-5 existence wasn’t going to be his thing. I can see his poor momma’s teary eyes now as she saw her bright-eyed college boy let his promising career prospects dwindle when he broke the news that he was going to write his master’s thesis on “How blues musicians use their thumb.” “Yeah mom, and then I am going to be a professional bluesman to play the music of poor black folks from down South.” No really, that was fifty years ago and he is still at it, stronger than ever. Meet Andy Cohen, a Massachusetts transplant Piedmont picker down in Tennessee who carries on the old traditions in a beautiful way. The Memphis resident is the real deal, who in many ways embodies the history of the blues as carried on by the baby-boomer generation. If you want to understand the acoustic blues experience, the transition of the from pre-war blues (WWII, that is) to the 1960s blues revival on to modern day acoustic blues, Earwig artist Cohen is a perfect testimonial.

Like so many young white college kids in the 1960s and 70s, Andy Cohen, listened to the old country masters like Big Bill Broonzy, Gary Davis and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and all the greats from the golden era. He comes from a musical household and played piano as a kid, so by the time the blues-bug bit him, he was ready. Inspired, he picked up the guitar in college and since then he went down that long and lonesome road to eek out a hard living as an acoustic bluesman. Over the last five decades he traversed that tough road to pick the guitar. Fortunately, he has learned a thing or two about playing, by now he has ascended as one of the great contemporary preservationists of the Piedmont tradition, the East Coast fingerpicking style which is soaked in Ragtime and for which Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, John Cephas and John Jackson are well known.

Cohen is quite a colorful character and a real musicologist. He lived the life and paid his dues, by and by. He worked as lead boy for a series of blind bluesman, including Jim Brewer, Rev. Dan Smith, Brother Daniel Womack and Rev. Davis. He apprenticed with some of the best and got to know a virtual who-is-who of the 60s bluesmen, including our common friend , the late great John Jackson, one of the kindest, sweetest men who ever lived.

Andy Cohen is currently involved in organizing music festivals, active in the Folk Alliance (USA) and helps run a family musical instrument business. He teaches guitar, gigs six months out of the year and somehow makes a living with the blues.

All good. One thing is for sure, the boy can play. There are few people around today who had a chance to pick it all up from the old generations, get this good at it and continue to cherish and preserve the old traditions. Andy Cohen is simply a gem and a musical treasure who is unassuming and modest, but one of the best pickers on the scene. Today, he is a living master in his own right, and while not famous or internationally successful, he ranks right up there with the very best in the genre, and as far as promoting the music, few can carry his guitar case.

Watch the clip below of him playing Scott Joplin’s rag “Slow Drag” and see for yourself.

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