Of the many books written about blues music — Mississippi Delta Blues, Chicago Urban Blues, Electric Blues, Country Blues— none have embraced the Piedmont acoustic blues scene that has developed over decades in Washington, D.C. … until now, that is.
“Bittersweet Blues: The Home Blues of Washington, DC” written by Frank Mateis and the great harmonica player Phil Wiggins, contains a deep and wide-ranging history of the scene, including a first-hand account of the life and times of blues harmonica legend Wiggins. On Sept. 23, they will be in conversation with Library of Virginia staff member Greg Kimball, followed by a live performance by Wiggins. The event is free and open, but registration is required.
Wiggins and Mateis met in 1981. It was five years after the young Wiggins, still a high school student, met blues guitarist John Cephas at the Smithsonian American Folklore Festival. Despite the 24-year age difference, a partnership was born that lasted until Cephas’ death in 2009. The Cefas and Wiggins duo released 13 records and toured extensively, often with sponsorship from the US State Department. “I went to one of their concerts in New York in the early ’80s and talked to Phil backstage,” Matheis recalls. “He needed a ride to Pennsylvania for a concert, so I picked him up and our friendship began.”
After Cephas was gone, Matteis decided to write an article about Wiggins for Living Blues Magazine, which Matteis is a regular contributor to in addition to being the publisher of thecountryblues.com. The cover was titled “Phil Wiggins: Alone But Not Alone” and described how in Wiggins’ hands a simple ten-hole harmonica created a huge sound using “complex syncopated patterns, amazing breath control and rhythm, stylistic virtuosity and stunning solos”. .
The Great Migration was the starting point for the Piedmont blues scene. The musicians were part of dozens of rural black southerners who moved to northern urban centers, causing urban populations to expand. Washington, D.C., known as “Chocolate City” to its majority black population, was notable for maintaining a rural country blues tradition rather than developing an electric blues scene as Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit did.
Acoustic Piedmont blues became the soundtrack to fish fries, dances and parties, expressing the suffering and oppression of blacks during the Jim Crow era. “These blues musicians—Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell—survived by playing on street corners,” Matteis explains. “Phil played with Flora Moulton on F Street in front of the Woodward & Lothrop department store when Washington had a vibrant street scene.”
After an article in Living Blues Magazine, Matheis and Wiggins began working on a book about the Piedmont acoustic blues scene. Both were busy with multiple jobs, so the process took almost five years. At the heart of Sweet Bitter Blues is Wiggins’ story of reminiscing over 40 years of musical memories. “I wanted to write down Phil’s words precisely because I didn’t want this book to be another white man speaking for a black guy,” says Mateis. “We are close friends and I wanted to stay true to his words.”
In addition to Wiggins’ life story, the book includes supporting essays by Mattheis and others on the Washington blues scene from 1975 to the present. Musician Archie Edwards’ barbershop in Northeast Washington took center stage. From the 1950s until Edwards’ death in 1998, the blues guitarist/barber would close his shop at midday on Saturdays and invite local blues musicians for acoustic blues jam sessions.
As a result of putting the book together and telling people about it, Matteis ended up the recipient of hundreds of old black and white photos of the DC scene.
“Paul Kennedy from Archie’s Barber Shop brought me a shoebox of photos from the early days, none of which had ever been published,” says Mattheis, adding that 50 of them are included in the book. “He said no one ever asked to see them because no one paid attention to the DC scene.”
“Sweet Bitter Blues” corrects this oversight.
“Phil was named a National Heritage Fellow in 2017 and is the only living harmonica player to receive this,” says Mateis. “He is a living cultural treasure.”
A reception, conversation and performance of “Sweet Bitter Blues” will be held on Friday, September 23 at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. from 17:15 to 19:30. Free, but registration required. lva.virginia.gov