Phil Wiggins Blues House Party
Piedmont blues and dance
The blues of the Piedmont, the hilly region stretching from Georgia to the Chesapeake, is one of the oldest forms of the blues. It draws heavily on earlier fiddle and banjo string band music that was equally popular among rural blacks and whites, and served as a staple at country parties, hoedowns, and square dances. While country blues began as dance music, it is today most often heard in concert settings. Phil Wiggins Blues House Party brings together legendary bluesman Phil Wiggins and urban dance virtuoso Junious Brickhouse to “reconnect the dance with the dance music … getting people off their butts and doing what this music was meant for.”
Phil Wiggins is arguably America’s foremost blues harmonica master. He achieved worldwide acclaim as one half of the premier Piedmont blues duo of Cephas & Wiggins. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1954, Wiggins spent summers during his childhood at his grandmother’s house in Alabama, and in church there he absorbed the sounds of old-time hymns sung in the traditional call-and-response style. Phil was attracted to blues harmonica as a young man, and began his performing career with some of Washington, D.C.’s leading blues artists, including guitarists Archie Edwards and John Jackson, and slide guitarist and gospel singer Flora Molton. In 1976 Phil met guitarist and singer John Cephas, and they performed together as a duo for over three decades until Cephas’s death in 2009.
Wiggins’s latest project features two of his favorite musical collaborators. Virginia guitarist Rick Franklin has been a part of the D.C. blues scene since 1981. Since the death of elder statesmen like John Cephas, Franklin has emerged as one of the standard bearers for Piedmont blues. A respected guitar teacher, he is also something of a blues historian. Alabama native Marcus Moore began as a classically trained violinist, received a degree in jazz violin, and played for two years with the Harlem Symphony Orchestra; he was inspired by his father to study the black string band tradition as well. Now a fine blues fiddler, he met Wiggins at a jam session at Archie Edwards’s famed barbershop, and the two have played together for five years in the Chesapeake Sheiks.
The man who brings the dance back to the house party is the incomparable Junious Brickhouse. Growing up in Virginia Beach, he was introduced to country dance traditions at house parties he attended throughout Virginia’s Tidewater region with family members. Later Brickhouse found community and self-expression in urban dance. He carries this inspiration forward as the founder and executive director of Urban Artistry in D.C.’s Ward 7, an organization “dedicated to the performance and preservation of art forms inspired by the urban experience.” In 2009, he received a Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Award from the Maryland State Arts Council, recognizing him as a Master Artist teaching urban dance traditions. Resurrecting the dances of the African American country blues house party has involved personal memory, research, and intuition. Because the specifics of such dances were not well documented, Brickhouse studied with older Piedmont dancers like Williette Hinton and John Dee Holeman, as well as relying on the traditional skill of listening and responding organically to the music.
Through performances and workshops, the members of Phil Wiggins Blues House Party are reviving and celebrating not only a dance music tradition, but also building a community to carry it on.