Skip to main content
  • Remembering Blues Musician Phil Wiggins

    An elder Black man smiles on stage, cupping a harmonica near a microphone.
    Phil Wiggins at the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
    Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two Black men, playing harmonica and acoustic guitar, perform on an outdoor festival stage.
    Phil Wiggins and John Cephas at the 2006 Festival
    Photo by Ginevra Portlock, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two Black men perform on a stage with a seated crowd in the foreground.
    Phil Wiggins and John Cephas at the 1995 Festival
    Photo by Daphne Shuttleworth, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two Black men perform on an outdoor festival stage, one singing and the other playing acoustic guitar.
    Phil Wiggins and John Cephas at the 1987 Festival
    Photo by Daphne Shuttleworth, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Two Black men perform on an outdoor festival stage, one singing and the other playing acoustic guitar.
    Flora Molton and Phil Wiggins at the 1976 Festival
    Photo by Daphne Shuttleworth, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    With the passing of Phil Wiggins, we’ve lost a master musician and visionary who gracefully carried traditional blues across the generations. The revered artist and longtime friend of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival left us on May 7, a day before his seventieth birthday. While many of us knew Phil was being treated for cancer, it is still hard to believe he is gone. Ever the optimist, he was still making plans for the future.

    Phil Wiggins was born in Washington, D.C., in 1954. He spent his junior high school years in Germany, beginning in 1965, while his stepfather served in the army. Upon returning, his family settled in Northern Virginia in 1969—and Phil began to pursue playing harmonica. He had the opportunity to play with Flora Molton, a longtime D.C. street musician whom Phil had encountered and admired years before. She played “religious songs and truth songs” as Phil recalled.

    His first major performance was at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival with Flora Molton during his high school years. He also served on the Festival crew during this period. Thus began a remarkable career as Phil connected and joined with musicians who were his elders in years but compatriots in spirit and love of music. These elders lived in and around D.C. and included John Jackson, Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis, Esther Mae “Mother” Scott, John Cephas, and Archie Edwards—some of whom he met at the Festival.

    Phil performed for a period with Ellis and the Barrel House Rockers. When Ellis passed, he formed a duo with Piedmont blues guitarist John Cephas. The Cephas & Wiggins duo first toured Europe in 1981 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival, and they continued performing together for thirty-two years. Over the decades, they played many of the great halls of world and performed on every continent except Antarctica, for presidents and other dignitaries. Yet, Phil would not hesitate to perform for small gatherings, for friends and community events throughout his career. He returned to the Folklife Festival countless times, as recently as the summer of 2023 to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Folkways Records.

    Cameras: Rameshwar Bhatt, Nadya Ellerhorst, Eve Moore, Elliot Senatov
    Editor: Charlie Weber

    Many biographies focus almost exclusively on Phil’s music career, yet he is the father, with his former wife Wendy Chick, of two accomplished daughters, Eliza and Martha. He often performed at their grade school for fundraisers. He was a life partner to Judy LaPrade, who cared for him through his illness. He taught music with organizations serving the disability community. Since 2004, he graciously shared his story and music with my undergraduate students at the University of Maryland.

    He often recounted how his parents did not encourage his musical pursuits, preferring that he finish his college degree or chose a more conventional occupation. Clearly, we are all so very fortunate that he chose music and the harmonica. Listening to recordings of those class sessions is a reminder of how much facility Phil had with cross-generational communication. His patience and willingness to listen carefully are evident in his thoughtful responses to students. During those classes, whenever he performed his song “Cool Down,” a song about the shootings and violence in D.C. during the 1980s, you could hear a pin drop at the end. His powerful song of redemption “Forgiveness” had a similar impact on the students.

    Wiggins extended his vision of reaching across generations through his teaching and as artistic director of blues workshops at the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia and Centrum in Port Townsend, Washington—just to name two programs where he nurtured communities of musicians. With his most recent ensemble the Chesapeake Sheiks, Phil captured the music of house parties and community celebrations.

    In 2017, when Phil earned the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, the country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, the audience at the award ceremony was treated to a rousing performance by the Chesapeake Sheiks of Phil’s song “Anacostia Two Step” and “No Fools, No Fun,” a song whose lyrics reference characters both real and imagined—and only Phil knows which is which!

    In recent years, Phil began reflecting on the lessons from the past, often recounting the prayer meetings he witnessed with his grandmother in Titusville, Alabama. He recounted it as his first experience hearing the music he associated with the blues. His instrumental solo “Prayers and Praises” portrays not only the sound and melody of hymns but the physical space they are coming from, demonstrating his expert use of his breath, his skillful hands cupping his instrument, and his masterful articulation of pitch. If you had the opportunity to hear him perform this piece—or any other—in person, you are fortunate.

    Mark Puryear is a musician, ethnomusicologist, and curator. For the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, he curated the 2011 Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is program as well as the 2016 Freedom Sounds event that celebrated the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, sustainability projects, educational outreach, and more.