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  • Phil Wiggins performing with Bernice Johnson Reagon at the 1977 Festival of American Folklife.

    Phil Wiggins: A Remembrance

    Smithsonian Folkways is saddened to hear of the passing of our friend Phil Wiggins. Phil had an over fifty-year relationship with the Smithsonian, with both Folkways and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He was a part of our family.

    Phil and long-time musical partner John Cephas were ambassadors of the blues. Phil was a central figure of the East Coast scene for many decades, and spent much of his time teaching others. His work and practice ensured that the music he played and loved would live on.

    Phil was born in Washington, D.C., in May of 1954. In the 9th grade he discovered the harmonica—a chance encounter that would guide him for the rest of his life. As a teen, he met Flora Molton, a slide guitar player and gospel singer who would perform on the corner of F Street in D.C.'s shopping district, and began to play with her. The duo performed at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife for the first time in 1972. In 1976, Phil worked as a groundskeeper during the ten-week Bicentennial Festival. It was at the Festival that he met Piedmont blues guitarist and lifelong collaborator John Cephas. They founded a trio with pianist Big Chief Ellis and began to gig around Washington. It was around this time that I first met Phil, when he would buy harmonica supplies from the record store where I worked.

    The sound that the duo specialized in harkened back to the guitar and harmonica duets of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, foregrounding Cephas’ smooth vocals and guitar playing and Phil’s sweeping harp. Wiggins' harmonica solos elicited powerful responses from audiences and quickly became fan favorites. When it comes to the country blues, Phil was the best harmonica player out there. Cephas and Wiggins went on to perform hundreds of yearly shows and record fifteen albums together.

    Cephas and Wiggins frequently played the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Folk Festival, and other regional festivals. They spent much of the 1980s playing around the world, including as a part of a Smithsonian delegation to Moscow, Russia, and Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1988. Many of these trips were State Department tours organized by Joe Wilson, director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts. The crew included future Smithsonian Folkways engineer Pete Reiniger, who mastered many of their albums.

    Phil was a great teacher and worked diligently to teach others about the music he came to embody. He taught at the Augusta Heritage Center for decades, helping create their yearly Blues Week, and at the annual Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop, where he served as their artistic director. He also received multiple apprenticeship grants from the Maryland State Arts Council to mentor the next generation of players.

    Phil and John always gave back to the local community. They helped found the D.C. Blues Society, which hosted local gatherings and a yearly festival. They were the center of a scene. Two women who worked at the British Embassy hosted jams for some of us at their apartment. There were parties at both John Cephas’ and John Jackson’s houses where Phil was the grill master. More happenings popped up around Archie Edwards’ barber shop. I remember one party at Phil’s apartment in Adams Morgan where the music lasted until sunup. Warner Williams and others played for many hours without repeating a song.

    John Cephas passed away in 2009, leaving Phil to play on his own. He carried on, collaborating with the late Nat Reese, Corey Harris, Junious Brickhouse, Hubby Jenkins, and the Chesapeake Sheiks. In 2017, Phil Wiggins received a NEA National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for individuals in the American folk and traditional arts who have dedicated their lives to sharing their craft with others.

    In 2020, Phil published an autobiography called Sweet Bitter Blues: Washington, DC’s Homemade Blues, in which he recounts many stories about his life and the music he loved. In the summer of 2023, Phil performed for the last time at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, including songs alongside Dom Flemons.

    Phil was someone we could always call on to be part of our events. Phil was soft-spoken, kind, and a pleasure to be around. He will be missed by all at Smithsonian Folkways.

    -Jeff Place

    Jeff Place has been at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections since 1988. He holds an MLS from the University of Maryland and specializes in sound archives. He oversees the cataloging of the Center's collections and has been involved in the compilation of over sixty CDs of American music for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings including the Lead Belly Legacy Series; the Pete Seeger American Favorite Ballads; Jazz Fest; and The Asch Recordings (Woody Guthrie). Place has been nominated for ten GRAMMY Awards and twelve Indie Awards, winning three GRAMMYs and six Indies. He was one of the producers and writers of the acclaimed 1997 edition of the Anthology of American Folk Music and The Best of Broadside, 1962-1988 (2000). He has served on the curatorial team for a number of exhibitions including the traveling Woody Guthrie exhibition This Land is Your Land. In 2003, he co-curated the Smithsonian Folklife Festival program on Appalachian culture. In 2012, he is produced and co-authored (with Robert Santelli) the publication and CD-box set Woody at 100, Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Collection in 2014, and the Pete Seeger Centennial Collection in 2019.
    Phil Wiggins: A Remembrance | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings