Remembering Phil Wiggins (1954-2024)

Blues Harmonica Player and 2017 National Heritage Fellow
A man cradeling a harmonica and a microphone in his hands.

Photo Credit: Tom Pich

Music Credits: 

"NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of Free Music Archive

“Guitar Man,” performed by John Cephus and Phil Wiggins from the albumMasters of Piedmont Blues.

  “Guitar Rag,” performed by Phil Wiggins

Burn Your Bridges,” composed and performed by Phil Wiggins

“Struttin’ with Some Barbeque” composed by Lil Hardin Armstrong, performed by Phil Wiggins and the Chesapeake Sheiks from the LP, No Fools No Fun



Jo Reed:  From the National endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. Last month, to our great sorrow, we lost a great Blues musician 2017 National Heritage Fellow and harmonica master Phil Wiggins.  Since the loss of Phil is still so fresh, and June is Black Music Month, we thought it fitting to take this time to remember Phil Wiggins and his brilliant musicality. 

(music up)

Well, as you just heard, Phil Wiggins was one the best blues harmonica-players out there.  He produced a rich sound with amazing dexterity—moving from a rounded melody to a scorching solo in a moment. Today, we’re revisiting my 2017 interview with Phil.

Phil Wiggins came up in Washington DC and while he was still a kid, he played with great bluesman like Flora Molton, John Jackson, Johnny Shines and of course guitarist John Cephas—his partner for almost 35 years. 

Cephas and Wiggins came together when Phil joined the Chief Ellis’s band the BarrelHouse Rockers. After Ellis retired, Cephas and Wiggins began performing and recording together on their own. Although John Cephas was Phil’s elder by some 25 years the two had quickly developed into a partnership of incomparable musicality and mutual appreciation. Audiences and critics alike took notice. Together, Cephas and Wiggins toured the world, cut a dozen records, won awards, and played at venues from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall to the White House. After John Cephus passed away in 2009, Phil Wiggins looked to extend his musical reach, playing with a number of musicians like Ben Turner, Taj Mahal, and Corey Harris. He started an acoustic string band called the Chesapeake Sheiks; a group that plays swing, roots, and of course blues – both Piedmont and Delta. And in case you’re wondering, how Piedmont blues is different from Delta blues—here’s Phil Wiggins to straighten it out:

Phil Wiggins:  Piedmont blues, which I'm associated with mainly because of my partner that I played with for 35 years, John Cephas, he was a Piedmont-style player, and that style is defined by the technique that's used on the guitar. It's country blues, and what distinguishes Piedmont style is that on the guitar he would pick out a melody line on the treble strings with his fingers and pick out an alternating bass line at the same time with his thumb. Piedmont you would think of more of the guitar being used almost as if it was a piano.  So you'd sort of hear the left hand and right hand going at the same time, and that's really what the Piedmont style is. 

Jo Reed:  And what about Delta?  What's Delta blues?

Phil Wiggins:  Delta blues-- well, let's see. It's more kind of a riff. There's not usually two parts going on at the same time. The guitar line will be like a phrase, like a riff, or a phrase that is in unison with the vocal line, or like a counter-melody to the vocal line. With the Delta style, you just heard, like, kind of one hand at a time. 

Jo Reed:  Thank you. That is a really good explanation. 

Now, you were born and raised in Washington, is that correct?

Phil Wiggins:  That is correct.

Jo Reed:  Was your household musical?  Was there music in the house?

Phil Wiggins:  Well, yeah, yeah. So, I should say my father passed away when I was about seven, so my memories of him are, I don't know, cloudy and maybe romanticized and maybe larger than life, but I do remember my mother and father both singing in church, and I was told later on that my father played the piano but I don't really have any memory of hearing him sitting at a piano and playing.  But yeah, my family, you know, everybody'd sing in church.  My mother and father both were in the church choir. You know, my parents were from Alabama, from Titusville. Whenever my mother talked about home she was talking about Titusville, and we spent a lot of summers down there. The church that my grandmother went to, I think that the music that I heard at that church really influenced me quite a bit. I mean, I loved that and I think that's where I really started to fall in love with acoustic country blues is-- even though it wasn't blues, it was gospel music. That was the music that seemed to really touch me, to really have more impact on me than just about any other music that I had heard. 

Jo Reed:  So you started with the saxophone? That was your first instrument?

Phil Wiggins:  I would guess, yeah, but I mean, the harmonica, I had them-- like toy harmonicas and whatever. I always had one from the time I was real young, I always had one in my pocket, and I think I started really seriously trying to make music on it-- I was about 16 years old, I guess, and I just went out with my paper route money and bought a harmonica. I'd heard some great records and heard what it could do and had no idea how to make those sounds myself, but I just kept fooling with it <laughs> until I figured it out.  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Until you did. Who did you listen to that made you take the harmonica seriously and think, "Oh my god, this is what I want"?

Phil Wiggins:  Well, that's a good question.  Let’s see. Flora Molton.  She was a street musician in Washington, and she played the slide guitar and-- she was blind and she played the slide guitar and she sang, and she sang gospel music, and she played on the street, and she would play her slide guitar, and she had her foot jammed in a tambourine and she would keep rhythm for herself, and she would sing gospel songs and what she called "truth songs", which were songs that she made herself that were just about life, how to navigate through life. You know she was there from the time I was very young, and when I started fooling with the harmonica, I got reintroduced to her as a player, and that inspired me to want to make music on the harmonica, because it was cheap <laughs> and I could keep it in my pocket.  Also because it was real flexible.  It seemed to me to work the way your voice works, both in terms of that you can slur notes, you can bend notes.  Also it seems to be sort of almost kind of intuitive.  You have an idea and it just comes out, the same way like you have an idea and you speak it; you have an idea and you play it.  It feels like that to me, and I think that's what drew me to the harmonica. 

Jo Reed:  So the harmonica and blues almost came together at the same time for you.

Phil Wiggins:  Yes. Yes.

Jo Reed:  We don't think of Washington, D.C. as being a place where there's blues, but that's really missing a lot of its history musically, isn't it?

Phil Wiggins:  That's true. That's true.  I mean, my parents moved to D.C., like I said, from Titusville, Alabama. In my neighborhood, all the parents, that was the history.  All the parents were a part of that migration of people that moved from the Deep South to D.C., and they brought their customs and their celebrations and their habits, food habits and everything, with them from the Deep South, and so that's the environment that I grew up in, and that's the music people that people loved, was blues, Southern music. Also I was lucky in D.C. and Northern Virginia, but there were some really great players that made their homes in D.C.-- John Jackson, Archie Edwards--

Jo Reed:  Oh, tell us about Archie Edwards' barbershop.

Phil Wiggins:  Ah. Well, okay.  Archie was a barber, and he would-- on Saturday afternoon he would close up shop early and by midafternoon his guitar-playing friends would start showing up, and they would have a jam session that would go well into the evening, and he would hold court.  All the players in the D.C. area that they knew him, and they came, and they jammed there, and that went on for ages.  And then some young folks found out about it and started coming and got to be friends.  Well, Archie started playing out and touring and meeting people, and teaching some younger folks, and then Archie passed away and a bunch of the young people that had been coming to spend time with him at his barbershop kind of took it over and they created this foundation, the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation, I believe it's called, and what they did was just continue the jam session. But it became more than that.  It became kind of like a meeting place for the whole acoustic blues community.  If you wanted to know what was going on in town or who was playing where, you'd come to the barbershop. And it's still going. The original barbershop got sold out from under us and now they have a location in Riverdale, Maryland, and it was a great continuation of what Archie had started.

Jo Reed:  When was the first time you played out?  Do you remember?

Phil Wiggins:  Hmm .When I was in high school I had a band. We played Tavern Square in Alexandria, Virginia.  There was an old guy named Philip Roberts, and he was in charge of this concert series at Tavern Square, and I really don't exactly know how he heard about me and my band, but we got hired to play there.  The first date that we played there was the day that I met John Jackson, because this guy Philip Roberts had invited John to come out and play before us, and he and his wife, Cora, came, and I just immediately connected with him. I mean, he was amazing, world-class musician, but just real-- he was also a gravedigger.  He was also a collector and an authority on Civil War history and memorabilia. 

Jo Reed:  And John Jackson played guitar…

Phil Wiggins: Yes. I remember he and Cora.  And like I say, he was so friendly and down to earth, and generous, and after he heard me play, he invited me to come and play with him. He was due to play at a festival in Glen Echo the following weekend, and I thought sure he was just being nice, that he didn't really mean it, and I didn't go, <laughs> and then the next time I saw him he was actually angry with me for not showing up, because he had really meant it sincerely, and after that I realized, "Yeah, he means what he says, and he actually is that generous with his talent."

Jo Reed:  What kind of harmonica do you play?

Phil Wiggins:  Hohner Marine Band harmonicas.  It's called the diatonic harmonica, and it's got ten holes.

<music plays>

Jo Reed:  What do you like about the particular sound of that harmonica?

Phil Wiggins:  Well, the Marine Band has metal reed plates and the comb that separates the reed plates on the Marine Band is made out of wood.  I think it's pear wood-- and I think it is coated with beeswax or something. But anyway, it's a soft wood, and to me it has just a real beautiful tone.  A lot of them are made from plastic, and you can really tell the difference in the tone, and that's what I like about the Marine Band. 

Jo Reed:  And you play acoustic or traditional harmonica.  What does that mean in terms of the sound that you create and how you create it?

Phil Wiggins:  So, what you're hearing is the sound that my body creates through the harmonica, and-- okay, so, in comparison, people that play what's called electric harmonica or urban style will use like kind of a public address microphone and an amplifier, and they plug it in and they play the harmonica right up against the microphone, and that gets a real distorted sound that-- in comparison-- and with the microphone right in your hands, you can't really use your hands.  I use my hands a lot to shape the sound of the music as it's coming out the back.  So it's like my hands are like a cup and almost like a second mouth, making vowel shapes. So every note that's coming out the back of the harmonica is shaped by my hands. 

<music plays>

If you have a microphone in your hands, you can't really do that, and I really feel like with an amplifier, I feel like I can only get one sound, whereas the way I play with, between what I do with my mouth and what I do with my breath and breathing from my diaphragm and what I do with my hands, I can get a really, really wide variety of sounds.

Jo Reed:  Boy, do you ever.  Do you ever.

Phil Wiggins:  Well, I try to.  <laughs> 

Jo Reed:  How did you develop your sound?

Phil Wiggins:  In the beginning, I was lucky that I didn't know any other harmonica players and wasn't really aware of any other players, even like on recordings.  I was aware of Sonny Terry and that was about the only one. And so a lot of what I stole from when I was learning was piano and guitar and clarinet and trumpet and things like that.  That's what I stole from, and I feel like that really helped me to develop a style. And then also playing just in a duo, playing with John and playing with other guitar players just in a duo, I kind of figured out that a lot of the times my best function, or my best job, would be to use the harmonica as percussion, to help keep the beat.  And so I do that a lot, and I think that also helped to develop the style that I have. 

Jo Reed:  Barrelhouse Rockers.  Who was in that group and how did you get into it?

Phil Wiggins:  Okay. In 1976, I was at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.  I had been playing with Flora Molton, who I mentioned, the street musician, gospel singer. So it was at that festival-- and I had gotten to know Johnny Shines really well, and I had talked to him about although I was loving the gospel that acoustic blues was really what I was after, and he said, "Well, you know, just bide your time.  You'll get your chance," and he's the one that actually introduced me to Chief Ellis, who was the piano player that was the leader of the Barrelhouse Rockers, and John Cephas was the guitar player, and they had a bass player, James Bellamy. Johnny Shines was doing a jam session with them at the festival and then he invited me on stage with them, and then I followed them that evening to the Childe Harold, which was a blues bar and restaurant, and I got to sit in with them there, and after hanging out with them for-- I guess it was about a week that we hung out together at that festival-- and then they invited me <laughs> to join the Barrelhouse Rockers, which I jumped at the opportunity.

Jo Reed:  Now, how old were you?

Phil Wiggins:  I was at that time probably like 20.

Jo Reed:  Oh my god. You were a baby. 

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah. Yeah.  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  And these were blues elders.

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah. True.  True.

Jo Reed:  Were you scared?  Were you nervous?

Phil Wiggins:  I wasn't. I guess I didn't have--

Jo Reed:  You were too young to be nervous.

Phil Wiggins:  I didn't have sense enough to be nervous, no.  But I mean, they really made me feel welcome and at home and it was-- I felt like it was what I was meant to do.  I mean, I felt like-- and like I said, I didn't have sense enough <laughs> to be nervous.

Phil Wiggins: The interesting thing about that for me was, like I said, my father passed when I was seven and I haven't in my life come across very many people that ever knew my father, but when they had Jimmy Carter's inauguration, my mother happened to be in town-- and so I invited her to come down to-- we were doing an event for Jimmy Carter's inauguration that took place at the train station, and when she walked into the room and she saw Chief Ellis sitting at the piano, and she said, "Wilbur, what are you doing here?"  <laughs>  And it turns out that Chief Ellis, also known as Wilbur <laughs> Ellis, was a classmate of my father in grade school, and I had no idea.

Jo Reed:  And you had no idea until then.

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah. Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Wow.

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah. And so I was like, "Well, I must be in the right place at the right time."  Although Chief, after that-- because he had been sharing whatever adult beverages he had available-- and he says, "Nah, I can't give you any more moonshine.  I know your people now."  <laughs> 

Jo Reed: What did you learn from them – not just about playing, which I’m sure was a lot – but also about performing?



Jo Reed:  One of those. <laughs> 

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah. Yeah.  So.

Jo Reed:  And would gospel and church music be the music you hear at home, or would they listen to other things?

Phil Wiggins:  At home, my parents-- and I guess it was mainly my father's collection-- but they had a lot of great piano music that they listened to-- a lot of blues, barrelhouse piano, blues piano, and also a lot of jazz piano.  That's the thing that I remember most hearing on the turntable when I was a kid.  When I was real young, we used to sort of-- like on Saturday afternoons or Sunday, you just would gather round the record player and spin all those piano records.

Jo Reed:  I'm curious about musicians and whether or not they had ever gotten music in school when they were younger.  Because at a certain point arts education just began to get cut, but I find with musicians of a particular age, that there was music.  They got music when they were in school.  Did you?

Phil Wiggins:  Right. Right.  I did not, really.  I-- well, okay.  Let me rethink that, because for a while my family, we lived overseas, and when I was in seventh grade, the school that I went to, it was a combination of junior high and high school together, and they had a school band and they had a band program, and so for about-- like less than half a year I took saxophone in school, and about a third of the way through that year my family moved back to the States and I didn't really have that opportunity to continue that.  I didn't-- in elementary school I didn't have music, but I remember in particular-- I believe it was fourth grade-- I had a teacher, Mrs. Brooks.  She was-- or Ms. Brooks-- I don't remember exactly-- she was a really tall, black woman that-- she was our teacher, and every day before naptime she would get out her acoustic guitar and she would play some folk songs.  She would play like Odetta songs and things like that and-- so I remember that.  I remember loving that.  Of course my other influence growing up-- I was born in D.C. and sing solo and all, but also like on Wednesday night they would have prayer meeting, and I'd walk my grandmother to the church.  It was only about a block and a half from her house, and I'd walk her to the church and I'd be waiting outside for her to come out, and it was the elder women of the church that had the prayer meeting-- they would do prayer and praises-- and one of the women would lead the song and then the rest would kind of answer back, this call-and-response thing, and that music was I think really-- had an impact on me growing up. 

Phil Wiggins:  Hmm.  I guess just to be myself.  I mean a lot of music that I was listening to at the time, there was a real separation between the person and the person as a musician, and it was more like-- like with rock music or a lot of the music that I listened to, people would dress up fancy and go on stage and take on this persona or whatever, and these folks that I got to know-- Chief Ellis, John Cephas, John Jackson-- I mean, they would dress nice because they were going to be in public and all, but they just were themselves on stage.  They were real down to earth, and one thing that impressed me about all of those people was they always had time for whoever it was that wanted to be around their music, to hear their music, to learn about their music and to learn about their lives.  They always had time to talk to people.  That really impressed me.  There was no star complex or anything like that. They were just very real and down to earth people. I think that’s because at the time that they started playing music, they never really thought of it as a profession.  They thought of it as, "Well, we need music in our house, just like we need bread and we need tomatoes.  So we'll grown our own tomatoes, we'll bake our own bread, and we'll make our own music."

Jo Reed:  And people had day jobs.

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Did you have a day job then?

Phil Wiggins:  I did. <laughs>  I consider myself lucky too that I never had a good job.  I feel like my life kind of was a slow process of limiting my options to the point where it was, you know, sink or swim with music. 

Jo Reed:  When were you able to quit the day job?

Phil Wiggins:  Huh. I was working in the mail room at a law firm.  I would say that was in probably the mid '80s. 

Jo Reed:  So that was quite some time.

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Now you and John Cephas-- how did you begin that extraordinary 35-year partnership?

Phil Wiggins:  Chief Ellis retired, and moved back to Alabama. John had been getting calls from people wanting him to come out and play, and he really wasn't enjoying doing it by himself, and so he called me up, he said, " Would you like to do some with me?" and I said yeah.  So we started-- we just kind of gradually started doing that as a duo

Jo Reed: John Cephus and Phil Wiggins became internationally renowned stars of Piedmont blues. They recorded more than a dozen critically acclaimed albums winning the prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Award in 1984 for Best Traditional Album of the Year and in 1987 as Entertainers of the Year.

<music plays>

Jo Reed:  What do you think it was about you two that worked so well together?

Phil Wiggins:  Well, for me it was-- I mean, number one, that John probably was the best musician and best singer that I had met up to that point in my life, and I just loved the way he played and the way he sang and how real it was, how, like I say, just no pretense to it-- it's just what he did.  And that's <laughs>-- why he put up with me, I don't know the answer to that part.  <laughs>  Seriously, I think just because I did have sense enough when we were playing music together to keep my ears open and to figure out what-- at any point in time as we were playing what my job should be, that the main goal was that the two of us sounded as good as we possibly could together, that it wasn't about me being out front or me sounding good on my own; it was about the total sound of everything that was going on, and so stay out of the way of the vocals, help support the rhythm here, repeat this phrase so it'll strengthen it-- all that kind of stuff-- and I think John, I mean I do know because he actually said so, that he appreciated me as a musician and the things that I figured out to make us both sound good and to make the music good. 

Jo Reed:  Was it like you were in musical conversation with each other in some ways?

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah, a lot of the time, yeah.  And I think with the Piedmont style of music, that it really lends itself to that.  I mean, there's a certain amount of a groove and whatever, but it is, in a lot of ways, more like a conversation, and I think that's what I like about it the most.  I'm responding to what he's giving me and.  And we played together for over 30 years-- and so after a while it was like we could just really feel each other.  We could really anticipate each other.  There's no substitute for having spent that much time together playing together. I mean, it's kind of an interesting realization now that he's gone, it doesn't really seem like I have time in my life to learn to play with someone else as well as I could play with John. 

Jo Reed:  They began touring first around the United States and then around the world.

We did a lot of touring. Like we toured all over Europe and we toured-- we went to Japan, we went to Australia. The easiest way to state it is that we have performed on every continent except Antarctica.

Jo Reed:  And they did multiple tours for the State Department, who chose them as cultural ambassadors to represent Piedmont Blues to the world. 

Phil Wiggins:  They sent us to Africa, which was a pretty amazing milestone for me.  I had never imagined that this little harmonica would take me to this place that I'd always been longing to go there.  And so we did that, and then also we did a tour of Central and South America and the Caribbean. We went to China but, but that was organized by th3e Kennedy Center.

Jo Reed:  And you played at the White House.

Phil Wiggins:  Yes, yes we did.  That was great.  We got to play-- it was during Clinon’s administration. B.B. King and Jonny Lang and Della Reese were there, and that was amazing.  I mean, it was great to get to meet President Clinton and to meet Hillary, and one of the great things for me was that they let me bring my daughters with me that were seven and ten I think at about that time, and they got to meet President Clinton, and really the biggest thrill for them was to get to meet B.B. King and spend the whole day around him, and that was amazing for me too.

Jo Reed: When did you start writing songs?

 Phill Wiggins: Huh, that’s a good question too.  It seems like I’ve always made up songs.  I mean, I always loved words and playing with words and I always loved poetry. I remember I took a poetry class in college where I wrote some poems <laughs> and all.  But I think probably about the same time that I started playing with John I started really making up songs.  I mean, I've always enjoyed that, like when I'm in conversations, looking for the strong statements, and I feel like that that's where poetry happens-- poetry slash I guess lyrics happens. 

Jo Reed:  You start with words rather than a rhythm?

Phil Wiggins:  I do. I do.  Well, I-- yeah.  I would say yes, to the point where actually I've had a couple of times where I was making a song and then realized that it wasn't singable, <laughs> and so I'm conscious now, because I did, I came up with some phrases that I was really married to and I couldn't let them go, but couldn't sing them.

Jo Reed:  You couldn't get them out of your mouth.

Phil Wiggins:  <laughs>  I had to give them up, yeah.

Jo Reed:  Well, as we mentioned, John passed away in 2009, which had to have been this profound, life-changing moment for you, because a friend, a mentor, a musical partner. Can you just talk a little bit about how you made that transition?

Phil Wiggins:  Well, it was interesting, trying to play with other people, first of all.  I mean, I realized pretty quickly that I had kind of a pretty narrow comfort zone <laughs> after playing with the same person for 35 years, just in terms of rhythms of music and being pulled out of that, and at the same time, I mean, it was great because everything was all an adventure, and I will always miss John and miss his music, and like I say, I don't really feel like I have enough time left in my life to learn to play with anyone else as well.  And I mean, the other thing about John was coming up in the generation that he came up and in the environment that he came up in, music wasn't a profession; it was a soundtrack for celebration, for parties and things.  So he had a strong rhythm.  People could dance to that music.  They could feel it.  They could feel the rhythm of it, and most of the guitar players that I've wound up playing with since then, they haven't had that experience, and so they don't as strong a sense of rhythm and they don't have the understanding that part of my job is to lay down this beat so that these people can move, so that these people can dance.  And so I miss that.  But I got to the point after John passed on that I was just saying yes to whoever rang my phone, and it got me into <laughs> some pretty amazing musical adventures and predicaments and things.  But then too, I mean, I got to play-- I got into playing all this music that I've been loving all this time that I really didn't get a chance to play when I was with John.  Well, for one thing, I got to play my original songs a lot more, and I got them out there a lot more.  I did a lot more singing.  I mean, John had this amazing, beautiful voice, and he did like 90 percent of the singing when we performed together.  So I've done a lot more singing and developed that talent a lot more.

Jo Reed:  You have a great voice, actually.  I really love it.

Phil Wiggins:  Well, thank you.  So the fun thing too, I formed the band, the Chesapeake Sheiks, which is acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, violin and piano, and we do a lot of swing standards and torch songs and Delta blues, Piedmont blues, a lot my original songs.  We do all that, but it's kind of like swing band, string band kind of a setting, and I really, really enjoy that.  I mean, I've just learned some beautiful melodies--

Jo Reed:  Yeah, it's a great band.  I saw you at Laurel last year.

Phil Wiggins:  Ah, wow.

Jo Reed:  Yeah. It was fabulous. 

<music plays>

Jo Reed: And the other musicians are younger, and you are now the elder statesman.

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah, yeah. I get--

Jo Reed:  And that's a transition.  <laughs> 

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah. Yeah, no, it's great.  I get to be the cranky old guy.  It's great, I love it because they approach the music with so much respect and reverence, but also so much energy and wanting to put their own take on it, their own interpretation.  Because there are a lot of young people now with all this great technology and the technology makes all these really incredible recordings just so easily available, but they listen to that stuff and they try to recreate it note for note, and these guys that I play with, they don't do that.  They love that music and they're inspired by it, but again, none of us have sense enough to try to <laughs> do it exactly like that.  We want to do our thing with it.

Jo Reed:  Well, it's like you have the feeling of it, and then your interpretation of that feeling.

Phil Wiggins:  Yeah. Yeah, it's like the spark, and then we just take it and run with it.

Jo Reed:  And you have to talk about the Phil Wiggins House Party.

Phil Wiggins:  Ah, yeah. Yeah.  Oh, that's-- yeah.  A couple years ago, two really great dancers came into my life, and one is Junious Lee Brickhouse. He dances to Piedmont Blues. So Junious Brickhouse dances with me and performs with me with the combo that I call Phil Wiggins House Party, which is myself and Marcus Moore on violin, and my good friend from Arlington, Rick Franklin, that plays Piedmont style, finger-style guitar.  So three musicians and Junious dancing. 

Jo Reed:  What interested you in bringing dancing on the stage?

Phil Wiggins:  I feel like every note of music I've ever played in my life has been dance music, but it's never been presented as that, and that's always been a frustration to me. I don't feel like this music was ever meant for people sitting on their butts analyzing and-- it was meant to dance, and a lot of people nowadays don't think of music as dance music unless it has drums or unless it has the combination of bass and drums.  That's what attracted me to Piedmont style to begin with, just this great rhythm. It's a really strong, really interesting, really fun rhythm. That really-- it can be tricky, it can be complicated at times, but really to me it makes you want to get up off your butt and move.  But it's hardly ever presented as that.  So I've always wanted to reconnect that--

Jo Reed:  Marry those two again.

Phil Wiggins:  Yes. 

Jo Reed:  Excellent. And then finally, Phil, John was named a fellow in 1989, and you were a lad of, what, 34 at the time?

Phil Wiggins:  <laughs>  Yes.

Jo Reed:  And now you have been named a National Heritage Fellow.  What are your thoughts about that?

Phil Wiggins:  Well, I'm thrilled that that has happened, and I feel like-- I feel really fortunate and I feel like it's great to be recognized for doing what I do, that I've always loved.  I just did what I loved to do, and to be recognized for that is just wonderful to me. It just feels really good.  It makes me feel like I'm in the right place. <laughs> 

Jo Reed:  That’s harmonica player and 2017 National Heritage fellow Phil Wiggins.  Phil was not only an extraordinary musician, but he was also a true gentleman with a warm presence that drew people to him. He was deeply admired, respected, and loved. He is also missed. But he left his extraordinary music to console us.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.



This week's podcast is a heartfelt remembrance of blues harmonica master and 2017 National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins, who passed away last month. Phil Wiggins was celebrated for his extraordinary skill and soulful music, deeply rooted in the Piedmont blues tradition. In this interview, he shared his journey from his early days in Washington, DC, playing with renowned bluesmen, to his longstanding partnership with 1989 National Heritage Fellow guitarist John Cephas—a collaboration that brought them international acclaim and numerous awards. 

Phil Wiggins also discussed the distinct characteristics of Piedmont and Delta blues, his musical influences, and his love for the harmonica. We explored his experiences performing globally, his insights on music and culture, and his reflections on a lifetime dedicated to the blues. This episode is filled with Phil's music and stories, offering a fitting tribute to his enduring legacy. This 2017 podcast is hands-down one of my favorite interviews—not only because of Phil's extraordinary musicianship and thoughtful storytelling, but also because he was a true gentleman with a warm presence that drew people to him. He was deeply admired, respected, and loved. 

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