In Memory of John Cephas

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Leah Mahan, Sweet Old Song filmmakerEarlier this month, filmmaker Leah Mahan shared her memories of Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, the subject of her 2002 POV film Sweet Old Song, in celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday on March 4. Armstrong passed away in 2003. Last week, she received news that John Cephas, one of the musicians featured in Sweet Old Song had also passed away. She asked if she could write a few words about him.

'Bowling Green' John CephasI was so sad to learn that John Cephas, Piedmont blues guitarist and singer with the duo Cephas and Wiggins, died on March 4. I met him when I was making Sweet Old Song. The first footage I shot for the documentary, in 1998, was backstage at a concert near Boston, where Howard Armstrong was visiting with his friends Robert Lockwood, Jr., John Jackson, Phil Wiggins — and John.

I looked at some of that footage this week and it was hard to accept that except for Phil Wiggins, who is a generation younger, the other musicians have since passed away. There’s a moment I really enjoyed revisiting, when John is warming up for the concert and offers Howard his new guitar to try out. Howard plays “Good Morning Judge” and John says, “Well alright, Howard!” Later, from the stage, John asks Howard to stand in the audience and introduces him as “a master of his trade.”

John Cephas was twenty years younger than Howard, and he’d ask him about the old days, when Howard was a member of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops in the 1920s. In Sweet Old Song, they’re talking about that early music with Phil Wiggins and the fact that young African Americans generally aren’t into the country blues and string-band music that they play. But, John says, “The music is still there. It hasn’t died and it’s not going to die. Because it’s recorded. And there are people who are interested.”

Howard Armstrong and John Cephas playing music in Washington state.

In a scene from Sweet Old Song, Phil Wiggins, Howard Armstrong and John Cephas (l-r) jam in front of a class of students in Washington state in the late 1990s.

As I think about these musicians and their legacy, I’m heartened by the thousands that I saw turn out to hear them play and by the fact that there are young musicians, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops (named for Howard’s band) who are keeping the music alive.
Watch Sweet Old Song in its entirety on the POV website through May 2, 2009.

POV Guest Blogger
POV Guest Blogger
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.