Phil Wiggins, Virtuoso of the Blues Harmonica, Dies at 69

Phil Wiggins, a harmonica player of such range that he could make his instrument sound like a clarinet one minute, an accordion the next and then an entire percussion section — all in the service of the complex melodies and steady rhythms of the style known as the Piedmont blues — died on May 7 at his home in Takoma Park, Md. He was 69.

His daughter Martha Wiggins said the cause was cancer.

For much of his career, Mr. Wiggins was best known as half of the duo Cephas and Wiggins, in which he performed and recorded with the guitarist and singer John Cephas. The two were considered one of the country’s top Piedmont blues acts, and they toured regularly at home and abroad for over 30 years, until Mr. Cephas’s death in 2009.

The Piedmont blues is distinct from its Delta and Chicago cousins in its relaxed yet complicated melodies and its insistent rhythms. Its influences include gospel, Appalachian folk and early country music.

Mr. Cephas played his instrument with the sophisticated fingerpicking typical of Piedmont blues. Mr. Wiggins would wrap all manner of counterpoints around it, then burst out in a solo that could be aggressive or restrained, tight or relaxed.

“The harmonica works the same way as your voice,” he told Blues Blast magazine in 2021. “You have an idea in your mind that you want to express, and it just comes out, the same way speaking happens. In a lot of ways, it still feels that intuitive to me, except that, for me, the harmonica works better than my voice!”

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