Centrum is mourning the passing of National Heritage Fellow John Cephas, who died of natural causes at his home in Woodford, Virginia, on March 4. He was 78. Cephas was a fixture at Centrum’s Port Townsend Country Blues Festivals since its inception in 1993.
“His passing marks the end of an era,” said Centrum Blues program manager Peter McCracken. “There are a few Piedmont guitar players of his generation left, but no one with his combination of artistry and sense of tradition, of where his music and culture fits into the larger fabric of American civilization.”
Cephas, along with Phil Wiggins (who served as the Artistic Director for Blues at Centrum from 2004 to 2008) was one of the country’s leading players of the Piedmont style of blues music. Cephas’s presence at the Port Townsend gatherings from 1993 to 2008 inspired and guided a generation of blues players, said McCracken.
- Visit Centrum's community site to share your memories of John.
- Visit Weenie Campbell's "best moments" discussion.
John Cephas was born in Washington, D.C. in 1930 into a deeply religious family. His first taste of music was gospel, but blues soon became his calling. His grandfather taught him the folklore of eastern Virginia, where his ancestors had toiled as slaves, and Cephas learned about blues from a guitar-playing aunt. But it was his cousin, David Taleofero, who taught him much of what he plays—the alternating thumb-and-finger picking style that characterizes Piedmont blues.
After learning to play the alternating thumb and fingerpicking style that defines Piedmont blues, John began emulating the records he heard. By the age of nine, Cephas was playing for weekend gatherings with family and friends. Music from the ragtime era and early Piedmont artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Tampa Red were all influences on Cephas.
As a young man, Cephas joined the Capitol Harmonizers and toured on the gospel circuit. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to the United States and went through a variety of jobs that included professional gospel singer, carpenter and Atlantic fisherman. By the 1960s, Cephas was starting to make a living from his music and, since forming a duo with Wiggins in 1977, performed all over the world, serving as an ambassador of this singular American art form.
Among his many endeavors, Cephas served on the Executive Committe of the National Council for the Traditional Arts. He was also a founder of the Washington, D.C. Blues Society.
“More than anything else,” he once said, “I would like to see a revival of country blues by more young people… more people going to concerts, learning to play the music. That’s why I stay in the field of traditional music.”
He received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989. These fellowships recognize those who preserve cultural legacies in music, dance and crafts.