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Washington DC's Homemade Blues


a book by Phil Wiggins and Frank Matheis

“Great book!” —Richard Harrington, longtime music critic for the Washington Post

Sweet Bitter Blues is a non-fiction book, a co-authorship between blues musician Phil Wiggins and scribe Frank Matheis, publisher of and a contributing writer to Living Blues magazine. The authors share a lifelong love of the acoustic blues. Longtime acquaintances, the writing partners rekindled a friendship when Frank wrote a cover story about Phil in Living Blues magazine. In the course of the project, the duo decided to partner up on a book to tell the underrepresented story about the acoustic blues scene in and around Washington, D.C.


Released by the prestigious University Press of Mississippi, American made Music series, in March 16, 2020.


To order, visit the publisher’s website.

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Phil Wiggins is the recipient of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship (2017), the highest honor the United States bestows on the Traditional Arts. He is a two-time winner of the prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Award in 1984 for Best Traditional Album of the Year and in 1987 as Entertainers of the Year. He has played the White House for Bill and Hillary Clinton, performing with B.B. King. Cephas & Wiggins played Carnegie Hall, Royal Prince Albert Hall in London and the Sydney Opera House, as well as small venues worldwide, touring every continent except Antarctica. Phil has recorded more than a dozen critically acclaimed albums, including on Flying Fish and Alligator Records. Phil Wiggins as well as Cephas & Wiggins have been featured in major music magazines, including on the cover of Living Blues, and the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and many more.


Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area may not be the most famous traditional blues locality, but it is one of the richest. It is not as well-known as other parts of the country as a center of the acoustic blues, but in D.C. there is still a lively acoustic blues scene, started by a core of African American blues musicians who created a wonderfully harmonious, nurturing acoustic blues community.


The title of this book, Sweet Bitter Blues, is also the title of a blues melody written by John Cephas with lyrics by Otis Williams, a former Professor at the University of Maryland, a musician and poet. The Washington, D.C. duo John Cephas and Phil Wiggins recorded it as the title cut of a 1994 album, to which University of Maryland Prof. Barry Lee Pearson wrote the liner notes. It’s a symbolic example of real home-grown, local blues – Washington, D.C. area blues in every way, what they used to call “old down home” blues.

The simple two words “sweet” and “bitter” could also be used to generally define the acoustic blues style played along the East coast, commonly referred to as Piedmont Blues. This gentle and melodic blues style native to the Carolinas and Virginia over to Tennessee, is practiced along the entire mid-Atlantic region. The rich folk tradition in the Piedmont country blues owes much to ragtime, traditional Appalachian Mountain music, African American string music, spirituals and gospel, rural African American dance music, and the early white country music of the 1930s. Dr. Julia Olin, Director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, perhaps gave the cleanest definition as “the melodic, delicate, lyrical blues of this region. It’s not as percussive as other forms of blues. It’s not out of the cotton fields. There are no field holler moans. It even sounds fun.” This blues style features intricate fingerpicking with alternating bass and a simultaneous syncopated melody picked on the treble strings. Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Rev. Gary Davis, and many others along the East Coast made this folk music style famous. It has a certain sweetness in the guitar style, but the thematic of theses blues can be about the sacred, or the profane, about hardship, struggle, murder, pain, suffering, drinking, trouble with the opposite sex, and more. It’s the kind of blues where if you don’t understand the English, the singing and melody sounds so lovely and sweet, but if you hear and understand the words you can feel the bite:


Well. it’s sweet bitter blues

Walk all around my bed

Well, it’s sweet bitter blues

Walk all around my bed

Sometimes I wonder, am I alive or dead

Piedmont Blues, East Coast blues, Mid-Atlantic blues, it has many names, but in its essence, it is the pure, ethereal, original music of rural African-Americans that originated in the Eastern USA during the 1920s and 1930s. This music was brought to Washington, D.C. when rural African Americans moved to the city and brought their traditional musical styles with them. During the Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, from the early 20th Century to 1970, the population of Washington, D.C. exploded as many blacks headed north to seek economic opportunities and escape harsh Jim Crow segregationist laws. Like other large northern cities, the influx of southern rural folks brought along the blues musicians, but unlike Chicago, Memphis and St. Louis, the District of Columbia never developed a comparable electric blues scene and maintained its rural, country blues in the Songster and Piedmont blues traditions of the Mid-Atlantic region.


The acoustic blues scene is still going strong in and around Washington, D.C. today, but among the international blues audience, it hardly gets noticed. There are lots of books that analyze the folklore and ethnomusicology of the traditional blues. Much has been studied and written about the various musical styles and the musicians of the pre-WWII era. Yet, there is hardly any information published about the acoustic blues in our own time.

At its core, the D.C. area blues scene was and is rooted in the African American community, with a small group of musicians, proud and beloved men and women, who saw it as their mission to carry on their respective musical traditions: Flora Molton, Archie Edwards, John Jackson, John Cephas & Phil Wiggins. Because of their love for the music and willingness to teach, these fine musicians created a harmonious environment, mostly centered around Archie’s famous barbershop where Archie Edwards opened his doors ever Saturday afternoon for jam sessions. In the barbershop, and in the whole D.C. area scene, issues that were pervasive in other places never came up. Nobody was judged by their skill level, their skin color, their age, or gender…everybody was welcomed, everybody was met with open arms and a spirit of friendship pervaded.


The musicians in Washington, D.C. who are no longer with us have left an important legacy: “Carry on this music. Keep it going.” This book aims to do just that. It documents the music community in and around D.C. as Phil lived and experienced it. It is about the generation that continued this musical legacy and the facilitating forces that helped shape the local scene. Who better to tell that story than a musician who lived the history, was part of it, and continues the legacy of this musical tradition to this day, as performer and educator?


We happily tell the story that the Washington, D.C. acoustic blues scene was and is a “living tradition” and we tip our hats to those who made it happen. We are privileged to publish previously unpublished essays by Dr. Barry Lee Pearson, a longtime documentarian of the local blues scene in the Maryland/Virginia and Washington, D.C. region on the website Dr. Barry Lee Pearson, Professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, stands as the most steadfast supporter of the local acoustic blues scene in the greater Washington, D.C., area and beyond. As a musician, author, college lecturer, folklorist, and personal friend to the musicians, he has been the voice of this regional blues scene. In the Supporting Essays section, you will find numerous important documents by Dr. Pearson, who conducted interviews with the regional musicians over decades. This includes, or will soon include: Archie Edwards, John Cephas, Nat Reese, Nap Turner, Phil Wiggins and Otis Williams.

"This is an instant classic: one of those books that offers revelation after revelation, both on the autobiographical level (it's Phil's story) and on a broader cultural level (it's the first deep-and-wide history of Washington DC's acoustic blues scene). Absolutely first rate. I can't imagine a serious blues fan who won't want a copy."

—Adam Gussow, author of Mister Satan's Apprentice: A Blues Memoir and Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition. A documentary about his longtime blues duo, entitled Satan & Adam, is currently screening on Netflix.

Sweet Bitter Blues by Phil Wiggins and Frank Matheis is a great and thoughtful read. Reading this book just gives me an even better appreciation for Phil’s music. He’s a true bluesman and I recommend this book to EVERYBODY!”

—Charlie Musselwhite, Grammy-award-winning musician and Elder Statesman of the blues


“A fascinating first-person account of the Piedmont Blues scene over the past 40+ years from the eyes of one of the scene’s most important players. Full of details and deeply personal stories from Phil Wiggins’s decades of playing with not only his long-time partner John Cephas, but also nearly every other traditional blues artist in the region.”

—Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues Magazine


“Phil Wiggins and Frank Matheis are great storytellers. I have known some of the Washington DC acoustic Blues Illuminati that Sweet Bitter Blues talks about and others not at all. Phil’s words are so personal and brutally, lovingly honest. Phil Wiggins has survived to tell the tale. This book is treasure.”

—Guy Davis, Grammy-nominated blues musician


“It's nice to wander down the path our elders blazed before us. Sweet Bitter Blues is a quintessential read for any blues lover.”

—Jontavious Willis, Grammy-nominated blues musician


“Rarely is the Piedmont region discussed with any seriousness concerning the blues. This is corrected once and for all with Sweet Bitter Blues: Washington, DC's Homemade Blues. This book is culturally priceless, and its history should be enshrined in every mention of the blues.”

—Bruce Conforth, professor of American Culture, Founding Curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and co-author of Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson.

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