NEA National Heritage Fellow, 1989 Master Piedmont Blues Musician
When I grew up as a kid and we had these get-togethers in the country, almost everyone had a repertoire that included “John Henry,” and you were judged by how well you played it. Some played it in open keys, some in standard keys. And you were judged by how far along you were. People love this song because it’s such a powerful song. The experience in this song is like in the movies or books, good finally wins over bad. After tackling this steam drill, this man in human flesh finally overcomes. This is like one of those hero stories that everyone likes. Although he died in the end, he accomplished his goals. People like to hear stories where people win.
– John Cephas
John Cephas was a master of Piedmont blues music. He played acoustic guitar and sang in a strong, melodic voice. The distinguishing characteristics of the Piedmont style are its finger-picking and a bouncy rhythm, which demonstrates the influences of ragtime, string bands, and other popular styles. Learning more about John Cephas, the Piedmont, blues, and the folk hero John Henry opens a window to American history, music, race relations, and the power of traditional culture.