Dom Flemons is a fount of knowledge about all kinds of music, but most importantly, he has enriched the world with his thorough and entertaining tales about the American Songster tradition. Dom has dug deep into music and has taken his role seriously. His shows are not only impressive from a musical standpoint, but he gives the audience a lot to think about—how this traditional music of the past influences today’s culture. Dom is a master at what he does. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, prolific songwriter and outstanding researcher, and an incredible presence on stage.
Dom Flemons is appearing at the me&thee coffeehouse in Marblehead, MA. He will also be sharing his talent and musical wisdom with the fourth and fifth graders in Marblehead due to the generosity of the me&thee and the Newport Festivals Foundation.
To learn more about Dom, visit his website.
Here’s a video of Dom from the Folk Alley studios.
Here’s a fascinating interview about the instruments played by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Can you explain what an “American songster” is for those who are not familiar with that terminology?
A songster is a musician who plays AND sings a variety of material for an audience. Before the advent of recording technology, all musicians were essentially songsters playing songs to suit their needs. Once recorded music became a full industry, these songsters begin to specialize their music to the industry. Now we have people who focus on blues, jazz, country or old-time music.
When I begin to fully embrace my solo career, I wanted to figure out a way to describe my multi-faceted interest in different types of music as well as have a moniker rooted in tradition. Hence “The American Songster”.
I’m intrigued by the fact that you grew up in Phoenix — not exactly the folk music capital of the country, what was it that drew you to the east coast and to Piedmont and Appalachian music that you champion so much?
Funny enough, Phoenix has a very interesting history with folk music. I didn’t realize at the time but a lot of pop folk groups of the early 1960s emerged on the West Coast. The group the Kingston Trio started out in San Francisco and eventually migrated to Phoenix where they still have a summer camp.
When I first started playing out, I began to attend the Phoenix, Prescott, and Flagstaff folk festivals every year learning from the local performers who would attend.
I began playing guitar, banjo and harmonica when I was in my third year of high school and I started out playing songs I heard on the oldies station as well as folk music from the early 1960s and 70s. As I continued forward I began to study the beat poets and studied classical literature all the way through college.
About two months before I graduated from college I attended the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC in 2005. That would prove to be my first trip to North Carolina which inspired me to move out there shortly after.
At that time black string band music tradition and its rich history was still a fairly new field of study. When I begin to delve into the music, I knew it would be important to document my findings as I was doing it. I found that part of my job was compiling the information from the different schools of thought to create a broader picture of black string band music.
While I was not fully aware of how far the group I formed, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, would go at the time, I was fully aware that we were on the cusp of doing some great things. We not only created great music, we were able to create awareness about the history and depth of the music we played that would ultimately enrich future generations with a sense of diversity in the music that might not be as clear from the scholar currently there. With that sort of opportunity, how could I say no? I have a collection of my documentation in the Southern Folklife Collection in UNC-CH in Chapel Hill, NC.
Who were your musical inspirations when you were growing up? And how did their music influence you?
As I mentioned before, there were a lot of local musicians in Phoenix that set me on the path to learn how to play music as a front man as well as a backup musician. These are two separate skills. By the time I made my way to North Carolina, I was familiar with a good deal of folk music and the scholarship and musicianship that accompanied it. My job was to observe and immerse myself in the culture of the South.
As for musical influences, besides folk music I’ve always had a great love of early rock ‘n’ roll from the 1950s through the 1970s. Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, the Beatles, the Zombies, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens. Bob Dylan.
I enjoyed all of this music, but I was never content to just listen to a single style or a single player. Once I got into the music of Carl Perkins for example, I was introduced to the world of honky-tonk music that preceded him. I started listening to Hank Williams, lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Eddy Arnold.
I was very fortunate that I grew up at a time in the early 1990s when all of the classic records of all time were being re-issued in pristine condition.
I went on this little journey with every type of music I enjoyed. It led me to begin collecting vinyl records and from there I was able to get access to music that was obscure to a good deal of people my age.
I begin performing on stage very early on so not only was I able to collect this music, I was able to let it simmer and marinate deep in my musical soul. When I went to North Carolina, I learned music a different way. I begin to meet elder blues singers and musicians who taught me something beyond just recordings. They shared with me their culture and their upbringing and showed me how that can influence the way one creates music. I would be amiss if I did not mention the names of Boo Hanks, John Dee Holeman and Joe Thompson as people who got me to understand that music is something that emanates from within. The understanding that Music represents culture is a lesson that I will never forget. Working with the non-profit Music Maker Relief Foundation I found a mission in helping share their stories with the audiences I began to play for as my touring continued to pick up steam.
But in keeping with your western upbringing, your newest recording celebrates the history of black cowboys. Tell us more about how the project evolved. I’m familiar with the Annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Did you get inspired by that group?
I begin working on my album, Black Cowboys, when I picked up a book called the Negro Cowboys on the road visiting family back in Phoenix years ago.
A short time afterword, I came across a CD called Deep River of Song: Black Texicans, featuring field recordings of black cowboys recorded by John and Alan Lomax.
These two pieces of documentation got me started on wrapping my mind around the subject. For the past 10 years or so, I have casually picked up different books on the subject and found myself fascinated with the fact that at least 1/4 of the Cowboys who settled the West were African American cowboys.
When the opportunity to create an album for Smithsonian Folkways came about I knew that the black cowboys story would be a worthwhile project. I have been very fortunate to not only get a chance to work with Smithsonian Folkways but also the National Museum of African-American History and Culture as this album is part of SF’s African American Legacy series.
About halfway through my research putting together the album I was invited to the national cowboy poetry gathering in 2016. Much to my surprise and delight, when I mentioned my upcoming project to the many gracious and wonderful performers at the Gathering they encouraged me wholeheartedly. It seemed that many in the cowboy community had been waiting for someone to re-analyze and elevate this powerful piece of Western history.
At my first year at the Gathering, I met the wonderful western artist Willie Matthews who painted the cover of the record. I also got to meet a wonderful cowboy poet and musician by the name of Andy Hedges who introduced me to a contemporary cowboy poem called “Ol’ Proc.” This poem written by cowboy poet Wally McRae tells the story of a young boy who meets a black cowboy who is well respected in the community. While he has heard many of the stories of this particular cowboy from his grandfather’s generation, race is never mentioned, and it surprises him to find out that this cowboy is a black man. It represents a not uncommon story in the west where ideology and reality are not always on the same plain. While a black cowboy could be respected by his peers the pressure of prejudice and racism could create a social wall that could not easily be broken.
One of the many things that I love about you and your music is that you explore so many diverse kinds of music and educate the general public about historical and musical genres that may have been around us all the time but flew by us because we weren’t in tune with them. For that, I thank you for offering us some much-needed information for this kind of folklore. Do you have any favorite pieces of history that you’ve discovered in your research?
I think my favorite rabbit hole for folklore came from my time working with the Oxford American on the biography of Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey. Dorsey‘s life story coincides with the birth of the blues as a popular music form and the kaleidoscope history that surrounds it.
Like a lot of my research projects, I try to grab as many primary resources as I can so I can tell the truest story based on the words and actions of the people involved. Dorsey started out as a church singer before becoming the musical director for Ma Rainey. After touring for four years with Ma Rainey, he decided to quit blues music and began composing gospel songs. He found there was no money in gospel songs at that time, so he went back to blues. Finally, in the wake of a personal tragedy, he put the blues behind him for good and began to exclusively perform and compose gospel songs.
The history that passes through this magnificent story would make your head spin. You see the transition of African American popular music change from Ragtime to coon songs to blues to jazz to Hokum to gospel in the single lifetime.
I am still wrapping my head around the story. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about it.
Needless to say, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a pivotal part of your own personal legacy. Was the path to a solo career a difficult one or has the relief of perhaps less touring and all the logistics that go into that made it a bit easier on your physically and emotionally so that you are freer to do what you want to do on a daily or weekly basis?
Or are you busier than you ever were?One thing to know about the Carolina Chocolate Drops is that we covered every single goal we ever set out to cover including winning a Grammy, being in a movie, traveling the world and, of course, being inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. In nine years, we did pretty good overall.
When I decided to leave the group, I did find it easier to work as a soloist in the way that a group requires compromise. When you have multiple people running a group you have to suppress a few ideas for the good of the whole team.
For example, I wouldn’t have been able to do the black cowboys record still being in the group. It’s was a little too specific for what group was doing. As a soloist, I can do anything I want.
At the same time, that means everything falls on my head. I am truly busier than ever now. I have to juggle my music, my family, and my business all at the same time. I love it.
I’m always proud of the accomplishments we made in the group and the awareness we created in the time we all worked together. The logistics now are no less than they were when I was touring all the time with the group. They are just different than they were before. Many of my shows tend to have specialized lectures and school performances which is a lot different in the group where we did mostly touring after we got big.
Once you reach a certain point in your career, it’s no longer a matter of getting to the top it’s a journey into long-term goals and crafting the ultimate legacy and whatever that mean in the future.
I’m just dipping into your monthly podcast, American Podcast Radio. Again, it’s a most enlightening way to immerse oneself in forms of new music. Do you have any favorite episodes that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
I think one of my favorite episodes of American Songster radio is the episode I did with English guitar player Martin Simpson. In the interview Martin speaks about the effect of American music on his development. I thought it was very interesting the way that even being across the Atlantic, American popular culture could be such a foundational part of his musical journey.
But Martin’s experience speaks of the strength of American culture on the rest of the world. Gave me context for why they say America is the “leader of the free world”. It’s not just leadership with rules and regulation but leadership through example and culture.
Martin’s story of seeing the American folk blues tour and England tells a lot about the way these blues singers, seen as just musicians in America, were cultural ambassadors in England and their music sent shockwaves through that country that we still feel now.
That’s something that’s always a joy about American Songster radio. It’s a way to be able to go beyond just the music into really showcase the intense and deep thought that people put behind their music.
They will always not always talk about it because it’s not their job to do that on stage but when given the moment in casual conversation musicians will constantly surprise and amaze you with the things they think about when they put their songs together. But that’s what songsters do: make people think.