Forget the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys. Awards season is upon us in the Washington, D.C. area, and that means the NEA National Heritage Fellowship.
The 35-year-old tradition of celebrating the finest folk and traditional artists from every corner of the United States is a way to recognize and reward folk artists, and an opportunity for the public to learn more about the diverse art forms that might be common in some communities yet unknown in others.
“This award is meant to honor people who have demonstrated a mastery of traditional arts,” said Clifford Murphy, director of Folk & Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts. “It’s a reflection of the fact that this agency has an appreciation of expressive culture, and a mechanism to celebrate those who are particularly gifted and to share those traditions publicly.”
This year, the honor goes to a distinguished group of nine master folk artists from all over the country—from North Dakota to Texas to Puerto Rico and in between—including Takoma Park’s Phil Wiggins, a legendary songwriter and harmonica player in the Piedmont blues style as well as a teacher, mentor, soundtrack artist and film narrator. Luminaries like Chuck Brown, BB King, John Hooker and Wiggins’ musical partner, the late John Cephas, are past NEA National Heritage Fellows; the award bestows the nation’s highest honor in the Folk and Traditional Arts as well as $25,000. Best of all, the honor begins right in the audience.
“When this award was started in 1982, the impetus was to celebrate people who carried on significant cultural traditions across the country,” said Murphy. “It’s interesting to look across 422 Fellows since then and see who and what is encompassed—not just the geography, (but also) the genres.” Programs like this one were started, he added, “to create a platform for arts that exist as a grassroots community expression.” And to ensure that honorees truly exemplify that expression, Fellows are chosen by a process that starts, literally, by popular demand, then moves to a “panel of experts—scholars, artists, past heritage scholars—reviewing nominations from the public.”
For Wiggins, it is why being named an NEA National Heritage Fellow is a standout honor in a career that has seen more than its share of awards. “The great thing about it is that it’s recognition by other artists,” said Wiggins. “It’s my understanding that it’s the highest honor in folk and traditional arts, like being named a national treasure.”
Which Wiggins, an astonishingly accomplished master of the Piedmont blues harmonica with a decades-long career behind him, most certainly is. He is a humble man who makes songs by learning from others and calling upon memories of stories he was told as a child, but he is also a savvy entertainer, a civil rights and arts activist, and a blues powerhouse who blended a distinctly D.C. sound with the folk traditions of Alabama and the exacting fingerpicking techniques of Piedmont blues. His contributions to the traditional arts heritage here in the United States look back—and forward—over a timeline steeped in historic relevance.
“I was born in Washington, D.C., and pretty much grew up here,” said Wiggins. “My parents came from Titusville, Alabama, just after they got married— basically to get away from the Deep South and Jim Crow—just looking for a place to have better opportunities, a better life.
“I feel like I’m first generation.”
And like so many “first-generation” Americans, Wiggins grew up with an oversized interest in the culture his parents had left behind, in their case as part of The Great Migration that saw an estimated five-and-a-half million African Americans move from the rural South to the urban North between 1915 and 1970. The Wiggins kids—and “all the kids I knew”—became native Washingtonians with a unique cultural perspective, one that drew deeply from the Southern traditions of their ancestors. Wiggins’ parents raised him on gospel records at home and choir singing in church; his father “passed when I was just 7, so I don’t have clear memories about him, but I’ve been told that he played the piano—and I remember seeing a piano in my grandfather’s house.”
Every summer, Wiggins explained, “We’d go to what my mother always called ‘home.’ That’s where my grandmother lived—the matriarch of our family—and I was always surrounded by music.”
Music and stories, too—of sharecroppers and coal miners, many about the small triumphs and big tragedies family members experienced in the tumultuous times after the Civil War. Wiggins calls himself a “song maker” because the written word doesn’t drive his tales; he said that the passed-along stories he grew up with, about post-slavery conditions and the social injustices that laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Era, have provided him with plenty of material for songs. “Sometimes I think I’m stating the obvious,” he said. “But then I realize, no, no. It’s not as obvious as it seems to me.”
Wiggins started building a career that would balance the music he first heard at his grandfather’s piano and at Green Liberty Baptist Church’s prayer-and-praise sessions with the broader traditions of Piedmont blues, learning the gentle traditions of the ultra-melodic musical form from a host of blues giants while he was just a teenager.
“I connected with things that sounded like and felt like ‘home’ to me,” he said. “I was drawn to people like (D.C. singer-composer) Mother Esther Mae Scott, who was from Mississippi; Big Chief Ellis who I found out later was from my parents’ neighborhood; John Cephas, who I ended up partnering with, and Flora Molton—she was a street musician, and she played slide guitar and sang gospel songs she wrote herself.
“That sound really felt like home to me; it resonated really strongly with me.”
Wiggins said that when he was in high school, he had friends that were twice and three times his age, musicians who mentored him, like blues greats Johnny Shines, Sunnyland Slim, Sam Chatmon, Robert Belfour and Howard Armstrong.
“I connected with the customs and the culture,” he said, and he continues to connect: performing, touring and mentoring the next generation as a teacher and artistic director.
Which is a big factor in this latest award. As Murphy pointed out, “Quite often, there are people who have a very deep commitment, who appreciate that they’re actively seeking ways to pass these traditions on to the next generation.”
Wiggins does that as a matter of course, through apprenticeships and workshops, and Murphy hopes that the NEA Heritage Fellowship will be a chance to give back to the artist who has given so much to Montgomery County and the D.C. area. He noted that the honorific events are free and open to the public, and encouraged local music lovers to “come out in person, and celebrate Phil by being present.”
The NEA celebrates Phil Wiggins and the 2017 National Heritage Fellows at the NEA National Heritage Fellowships Awards Ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, at the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE, D.C. The NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert takes place at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, at George Washington University’s (GWU) Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW, D.C. Both events are free and open to the public. Concert tickets are first-come, first-served; free tickets to the concert can be reserved online at Lisner.gwu.edu or in person at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium Box Office and the House of Musical Traditions, 7010 Westmoreland Ave., Takoma Park. Ticket-holders should arrive by 7:45 p.m. At that time, all unclaimed tickets will be released to those in the stand-by line. The concert will be live streamed at arts.gov beginning at 8 p.m. Sept. 15. Viewers can join a discussion about the National Heritage Fellows on Twitter using the hashtag #NEAHeritage17.