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Cultural Treasure

Of the scores of books written about blues music –Mississippi Delta blues, Chicago urban blues, electric blues, country blues— not one covered the Piedmont acoustic blues scene that developed over decades in Washington, D.C. … that is until now.

“Sweet Bitter Blues: Washington D.C.’s Homemade Blues,” written by Frank Matheis and harmonica player extraordinaire Phil Wiggins, provides a deep and wide history of that scene, including a firsthand account of the life and times of blues harmonica legend Wiggins. The two will be in conversation with the Library of Virginia’s Gregg Kimball on Sept. 23, followed by a live performance by Wiggins. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

Wiggins and Matheis met in 1981. That was five years after the young Wiggins, still a high school student, connected with blues guitarist John Cephas at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. Despite the 24-year difference in their ages, a partnership was born, one that continued until Cephas died in 2009. The duo of Cephas and Wiggins put out 13 records and toured extensively, often thanks to the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of State. “I went to one of their concerts in New York in the early ‘80s and spoke to Phil backstage,” Matheis recalls. “He needed a ride to Pennsylvania for a gig, so I took him and our friendship began.”

It was after Cephas was gone that Matheis decided to do a feature article on Wiggins for Living Blues Magazine, a publication Matheis regularly contributes to in addition to being the publisher of The cover story was titled “Phil Wiggins: On His Own, But Not Alone” and told of how, in the hands of Wiggins, the simple ten-hole harmonica produced a huge sound by employing “complex, syncopated patterns, amazing breath control and rhythm, stylistic virtuosity and mind-boggling solo runs.”

The Great Migration was the starting point for the Piedmont Blues scene. Musicians were part of the scores of rural Black southerners moving to northern urban centers, causing the cities’ populations to swell. Washington, D.C., aka “Chocolate City” for its majority Black population, stood out because it maintained its rural country blues tradition rather than developing an electric blues scene the way Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit did.

The acoustic Piedmont blues became the soundtrack for fish fries, dances, and parties, expressing the suffering and oppression of the Black community during the Jim Crow era. “Those blues musicians -Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell- survived by playing on street corners,” Matheis explains. “Phil played with Flora Molton on F Street in front of Woodward & Lothrop department store back when Washington had an active street scene.”

After the feature story in Living Blues Magazine, Matheis and Wiggins began working on a book about the acoustic Piedmont blues scene. Both were busy doing multiple jobs, so the process took nearly five years. The backbone of “Sweet Bitter Blues” is Wiggins’ story as he recollected over 40 years of musical memories. “I wanted to put down Phil’s words exactly because I didn’t want this book to be another white guy speaking for a Black guy,” Matheis says. “We’re close friends and I wanted to stay true to his words.”

Besides Wiggins’ life story, the book includes supporting essays from Matheis and others about Washington’s blues scene from 1975 to the present. At the scene’s heart was musician Archie Edwards’ barbershop in northeast Washington. From the 1950s through Edwards’ death in 1998, the blues guitarist/barber would close his shop mid-day on Saturdays and invite local blues musicians in for acoustic blues jam sessions.

As a result of pulling the book together and telling people about it, Matheis found himself the recipient of hundreds of old black and white photographs of D.C.’s scene.

“Paul Kennedy at Archie’s Barbershop brought me a whole shoebox full of photos from the early days, none of which have ever been published,” Matheis says, adding that 50 of them are included in the book. “He said no one had ever asked to see them because no one paid any attention to the D.C. scene.”

“Sweet Bitter Blues” corrects that oversight.

“Phil was named a national heritage fellow in 2017 and he’s the only living harmonica player to receive it,” Matheis says. “He’s a living cultural treasure.”

The “Sweet Bitter Blues” reception, talk and performance will be held on Friday, Sept. 23, at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. from 5:15 to 7:30 p.m. Free, but registration required.

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