By Sarah Vogelsong
This past weekend, it was Bowling Green’s turn to put up a marker to a man who left his mark on many—both around the world and closer to home, in his beloved Caroline County.
The Bowling Green Arts Commission presented a tribute to musician John Cephas on the occasion of the unveiling of the John Cephas historical marker at the corner of Main Street and Broaddus Avenue on Saturday, June 21. Dozens of residents, family members, and musicians gathered to tell stories of the life of the man who once was known as “Bowling Green John Cephas.”
Vice Mayor Glenn McDearmon presided over the ceremonies, and Smithsonian Folkways archivist and curator Jeff Place, Cephas’s daughter Yolanda Johnson, and Cephas’s musical partner Phil Wiggins—a surprise guest—delivered speeches.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1930, Cephas was raised both there and in Caroline County. A cousin first taught him to play the Piedmont blues, a distinct fingerpicking style of music that sprang from the Piedmont region and is played from Maryland down to Georgia.
“John … loved that music and tried to keep it alive,” Place told the audience. “He was a teacher. He spent his life trying to show other people that came along how to play this music, and how to play it correctly.”
From his early beginnings playing at rural dance parties, Cephas’s fame grew, particularly after meeting Wiggins in Washington, D.C., in 1976, where the two joined together to form the duo Cephas & Wiggins. In 1987 they were awarded the W. C. Handy Blues Entertainers of the Year award, and in 1989, Cephas received the National Endowment for the Arts’ highly prestigious National Heritage Fellowship.
Though the pair’s music often took them all over the world, Wiggins recalled that Caroline always occupied a special place in his partner’s heart.
“To John, the idea of home was a very important thing, and he worked very hard and for a very long time to build himself a home here,” said Wiggins. “John liked to travel … but John was never at home on the road. This was always his home.”
It was a love that was expressed in his music—such as his instrumental composition “Caroline in the Morning”—as well as in the wide network of ties he forged in Bowling Green and throughout the county. At the ceremony Saturday, everyone seemed to have a memory of Cephas—of his playing, of the gatherings that he held at his house off Page Road, of his prodigious skill at pingpong.
“Nothing made him happier than to have someone drop by the house and sit down and teach them something about the Piedmont blues,” said his friend and Caroline resident Susan Minarchi.
“He got a thrill out of making other people happy,” said Johnson.
His children grew up listening to their father play. Johnson still recalls the weekends of her childhood, when her great-grandmother would fill up the table with home-cooked food, her father would play, and friends and family would gather together to enjoy each other’s company. Cephas had a wide range of songs in his repertoire, but it was “John Henry” Johnson liked best, while Leshawn Pollard, one of Johnson’s daughters and Cephas’s granddaughters, was partial to his version of “Stagolee.”
Fifteen members of Cephas’s family were present at the ceremony Saturday, and one of his granddaughters, Ortisha Wilson, carried on the family’s musical tradition at a performance held afterward at the Caroline Community Services Center. A trio composed of musicians Robert Flowers, Jay Summeroul, and Warner Williams also performed.
“I know that our father would be so honored and grateful to know the legend he left behind,” said Johnson.
Looking out over the audience Saturday, she recalled past performances that her father gave.
“I remember seeing other people dancing, but I don’t remember ever seeing him dancing,” she said. “He would play his guitar, sing, and pat his feet really hard instead. If he could only see how much his music is still touching people’s lives, maybe I could have the opportunity to see him dance on this special day.”