Maryland Recipients of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship
Phil Wiggins named 2017 NEA National Heritage Fellow
Please join Maryland Traditions and the Maryland State Arts Council in congratulating Piedmont blues harmonica master Phil Wiggins as Maryland’s newest recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
As a member of the 2017 class of fellows, which comprises nine folk and traditional artists from across the United States, Wiggins joins a select group representing several of the many traditional art forms that “shape our culture and make our communities distinct,” as noted in an NEA press release.
Steeped in the style of acoustic country blues taking its name from the inland plateau known as the Piedmont, which stretches from Alabama to New Jersey, Wiggins has been playing harmonica since he was a teenager. Among the common stock of blues instruments, it was the harmonica that stood out to him, he says, because of “the way it vocalizes—the way the harmonica sings. I hadn’t really heard any other instrument that works so much the way a human voice works, or is as expressive in the way you can bend and shape notes.”
What Wiggins describes today as “this little piece of wood and metal” became the tool upon which he built his working life. After his early years of learning to play and meeting folks on the blues scene in Washington, DC, Wiggins carried his musical passion forward through a career that touched many of the genre’s luminaries—not least, figures like Robert Belfour and B.B. King.
Wiggins is probably best known for his 32-year collaboration with singer and guitarist John Cephas. From 1977 until Cephas’ passing in 2009, the duo acted as ambassadors of the country blues on every continent except Antarctica. Cephas was a member of the 1989 class of National Heritage Fellowship recipients. This year, Wiggins takes his place among that special number.
“Looking over the other people that have received this award, it’s amazing that I’m in that company,” he said. “That’s a huge affirmation for me, to be considered in that group.”
At the same time, he said he wants to receive his accolade humbly: “Of all my playing life, I’ve always wanted to have my mind and my ears open to hearing and learning. I’ve always felt like ego, and stuff like that, could be an obstacle to learning. I don’t ever want to a person who believes in my own press, because it seems like that would get in the way of learning. But at the same time, I feel grateful.”
A consummate tradition bearer, Wiggins has taught or set an example for countless burgeoning harmonica players. He continues to teach and lead as artistic director in workshops, including those at the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia and the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Workshop in Washington. Twice a master in the Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Award program, he has passed his knowledge down to learners to ensure that the flame of the Piedmont blues will burn brightly in the future.
His work with Maryland Traditions has also led to new projects. Teaching harmonica to apprentice Junious Brickhouse as part of a 2014-2015 apprenticeship, Wiggins was inspired to form the Phil Wiggins Blues House Party with Brickhouse, guitarist Rick Franklin, and fiddler Marcus Moore. The quartet’s aim is to put dance back into the Piedmont blues, which was never intended to be listened to from a still, sitting position. Hear Wiggins and Brickhouse tell their story by clicking on the video link.
Going forward, Wiggins said he hopes the fellowship will help open doors to reach new audiences. In particular, he said he would like people to begin to know him as a songmaker (his term, in opposition to “songwriter,” which suggests that writing drives the creative process), as he has been making original songs since his early days with Cephas. Recounting subjects from the hardscrabble life in early 20th century coal camps to the grim way a group of Igbo people escaped slavery in Georgia, Wiggins’ originals are raw and provocative.
It fits with the reason he plays music at all: “Mainly, I do it in order to communicate and to connect with people and to tell my story.”
Full List of Maryland Recipients of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship
National Endowment for the Arts Podcasts
The NEA offers podcasts of former NEA National Heritage Fellows.
2017 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Events in Washington, DC
The NEA will celebrate the 2017 National Heritage Fellows at two events this fall in Washington, DC, both of which are free and open to the public. The NEA National Heritage Fellowships Awards Ceremony will take place at the Library of Congress on Thursday, September 14, 2017 at 5:30 p.m. and the NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert will take place on Friday, September 15, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Concert tickets are first come, first served and will be available later this summer. The concert will also be webcast live at arts.gov. More information about both of these events will be available later this summer.
Make a nomination
To honor and preserve our nation's diverse cultural heritage, the National Endowment for the Arts annual awards up to eight NEA National Heritage Fellowships to master folk and traditional artists. These fellowships recognize lifetime achievement, artistic excellence and contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage. Nominations are accepted by using NEA's online nomination form. Each nomination should have a separate nomination package.