Blues guitarist and National Heritage Award recipient John Cephas died on March 4, at home in Woodford, Virginia. He was 78 years old, and is survived by his companion, Lynn Volpe, and nine children. Cephas was born in Washington, DC, in 1930, and grew up in nearby Bowling Green, Virginia. As a child he began to develop his Piedmont-style guitar playing skills with the help of his aunt, his cousin David Taleofero, and records by Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and other prominent blues guitarists.
As a young man, Cephas served in the Korean War, sang gospel music professionally, and worked as a carpenter and fisherman. He became a professional blues musician in the 1960s, playing at first with barrelhouse pianist Big Chief Ellis. In 1977 he formed a duo with harmonica player Phil Wiggins, a partnership that lasted many years and carried the two men on tour around the world many times. One of their many albums, Dog Days of August, won the 1987 W. C. Handy Award, and in 1989 Cephas received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Speaking to a Washington Post reporter in 2003, John Cephas described the appeal of Piedmont blues. “You hear that wonderfully melodic, alternating thumb and finger, you just stop and say, ‘I want to go hear more of that!’ It’s instant emotional appeal, and people all over, wherever they heard it, they’re just drawn to it.”