Blues Legend John Cephas On His Music

Piedmont-style blues guitarist John Cephas played at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Blues legend John Cephas
Blues legend John Cephas Piedmont Talent

The foremost Piedmont-style blues guitarist, John Cephas, of Bowling Green, Virginia, will play in this year's Folklife Festival, June 27 to July 1. He spoke with the magazine's David Zax.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST PICK UP A GUITAR? When I was about 9 or 10 years old.

WHO TAUGHT YOU PIEDMONT BLUES? I had a cousin, and he used to show me the Piedmont style, that alternating thumb- and finger-picking. The basic thrust of the technique is trying to play a bass line and then play a melody or lead part at the same time, like on the bass strings you play a bass line and then on the other strings you play a lead or you play the rhythm part. And it's all melded together to happen at the same.

WHY IS IT CALLED PIEDMONT? Because of the Piedmont region, roughly Virginia, parts of Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina. That's where this particular technique was attributed to, although it had its roots in Africa, where they played instruments like the kora, where they would use their thumb and fingers in order to spell out the melody of songs there.

YOU INCLUDE A LOT OF HISTORICAL PIEDMONT BLUES IN YOUR REPERTOIRE. I try to cover that broad spectrum of blues. I wouldn't want to just play contemporary music, when some of the more traditional forms of the music are just as important.

WHAT DO THE BLUES MEAN TO YOU? It's stories of life. It's true-to-life experiences. All you got to do is listen to the lyrics, and you'll see that they are related to some true-to-life experience of somebody--me, you and anybody else that hears it.

Blues legend John Cephas Piedmont Talent
Blues legend John Cephas Piedmont Talent

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.