The American Songster Speaks Out

Dom Flemons founded groundbreaking black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and recently recorded a seminal music work, Black Cowboys, for Smithsonian Folkways. He plays Club Jaeb Nov. 19 and spoke with us about his music and upcoming show at The Straz in this exclusive interview.

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Caught in the Act: We have such a huge respect for what you have dedicated your career to do.

Dom: Oh, thank you so much! It’s been a very interesting and wonderful journey into music, as well as history and culture. It’s been pretty amazing. I’ve also gotten to travel to quite a few wonderful destinations in my time of doing music. Quite a transition from busking on the streets of Phoenix.

CITA: You represented the United States at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia recently.

Dom: Yeah. There were 47 different countries representing. I was the first artist they’d ever had that was representing American historical music. That was a real honor and a real treat. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do from the beginning, is to be able to showcase a lot of different angles of American culture.

CITA: For any of our readers who may be hearing about you for the first time, can you describe what it is you do with American historical music?

Dom: Sure. That all goes back to my first years performing music. As I started getting into listening to records, first it was CD’s, then I got into LPs and cassettes a little bit growing up. Once I got into LPs, I really started to notice some amazing music. That got me into early rock and roll like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, stuff like that. And Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Hank Williams, and that was where I started. From there it turned into folk music, through Bob Dylan, of course. I got into the sixties’ folk revival … Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, and Lightnin Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Boggs, Doc Watson, a whole bunch of different people. So that’s where I started out. Just listening to music and wanting to learn those styles.

After that, I went to an event called the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. I started studying the African and African American Banjo. So that was when I started the group Carolina Chocolate Drops. I moved from Phoenix over to North Carolina, and I lived in Chapel Hill for a little while and Hillsboro for a little bit, as well. I got connected with a fellow named Tim Duffy, who did a lot of photos in the most recent project … old tintype photography. Tim runs a nonprofit called Music Maker Relief Foundation and I got to meet some amazing older blues singers that were obscure singers, even in of themselves. That was something that gave me a different perspective on music. I was able to interpret that music is listened art. Then I was able to really incorporate vernacular southern music in the style, the lifestyle into my performances.

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Tim Duffy’s tintypes of southern blues musicians were on exhibit at Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in 2018.

So I’ve been able to find a good hodge-podge of different things that have interested me in music and really crafting it in the true traditional style, which is knowing a bunch of different cultural cues that music can tell you. And be able to embed cultural cues within my actual performances, so people react and respond and get to understand the cultures I’m representing. That’s a little bit heady on the subject, but when you hear me play, I’m just playing a song and trying to entertain you with it.

That’s kind of where I started with all of it. Of course, Carolina Chocolate Drops became very popular so we were able to tour all over the world and be able to be a performing arm for that type of music, which had been under represented in a lot of folklore.

CITA: Could you give me a couple examples of what you mean by “cultural cues” in music?

Dom: I put it this way, the great folklorist Alan Lomax, he went out and recorded people for the Library of Congress in the thirties with his father. In his later career, to serve as an academic for folklore music, he created a system called cantometrics, and another system called choreometrics. The idea of choreometrics was that, when you see a traditional culture do a dance, the movement represents everything about that particular culture that’s significant. So say, for example, when you’re working in the field you might be cutting grass with a gigantic blade and you have a certain movement that you do all day long, working. The folk music that you do later that night will incorporate the same movements because you’ve been doing it all day. So, you automatically have the muscle memory. Say you have a gigantic stringed instrument that requires big waving arm motions that you’ve been doing all day at work—that’s what you do at play, as well.

That’s the idea that Alan Lomax had that I’ve always applied that to my music. Thinking about the movements, the dance, the message that comes across in body language and in material. I try to think of it almost like character acting. Where you have actors that, they don’t play themselves in every movie, they play whoever the character they’re playing is. It’s authentic. It looks and feels like the character you’re actually listening to. It’s almost like magic in a way.

CITA: Right.

Dom: It’s all music and fun in the end though.

CITA: What do you, personally, you as a human being, get out of living and breathing these antiquated musical traditions?

Dom: For me, having studied history, I find that American history, good and bad, is all very interesting. Some of it is very positive. Many parts of it is very negative. But when it comes to the music [of America], the music is something that incorporates something that is universal—music—and applies it to cultural experiences or cultural nuances that reflect the times in which the music was made. At first, I didn’t feel like I had many stories to tell myself, so I told other people’s stories. Over time, I’ve collected my own stories along the way, but the idea of telling a story along with a song, that’s something that I feel is inseparable in certain ways, especially in live performance. When you’re listening to a record, you need just a great recording of the singular song without the conversation, but when it comes to understanding music, people want both. They want the story and the song.

I feel like, especially as music becomes more modern, people are actually looking for those cues, but it’s just with different types of music. A lot of the reality stars, they sell their music by showing you they’re on t.v., and then you buy the music. Folk music works the same way, except that you have John Henry, who’s an archetype for an African American man who’s a railroad worker, his job is about to be replaced by the steam engine, so he challenges the steam engine and he wins. But then he dies tragically, afterward. That’s a pretty modern story if you want to make it that. It’s about man and machine, it’s about man, and then in versions of the song, it’s about his wife, Polly Ann, coming in and stepping in after he dies as a steel driver. It’s about men and women. It’s very multi faceted. It’s as good as anything we have…Shakespeare, Homer’s Epic Ballads, or anything like that. But it comes from the people. It’s the people’s voice and the people’s language. I enjoy that for the literature in of itself, but then when you can mix together different messages…people do it in Hip Hop all the time. They yell out, “Hey, everybody from Compton!” It’s a cultural cue. They say Compton a certain way, or they might say Hotlanta instead of Atlanta, that’s a cultural cue that people from around there know and so they respond to that.

It’s the same thing with folk music. That’s how all those songs have endured so long. There’s a lot of depth within them. That’s what draws me in. I’m constantly finding new stories. That’s why I like it.

CITA: Will you talk to us a little about Black Cowboys? That’s your latest album, right? When you come to the Straz, you’ll be highlighting songs from that work?

Dom: Absolutely. With Black Cowboys, it was kind of a step back to Arizona, where I’m from. I stumbled across this gift shop in the Petrified Forest in New Mexico, and I found a book called The Negro Cowboys by Phillip Durham. It talked about how one in four cowboys who settled the west were African American cowboys.

Having not seen a lot of that in movies and stuff like that, because my dad was really deep into cowboy movies, he’s from Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a western town. My grandfather was a logger and a preacher; he had moved over from east Texas, and my grandmother had moved over from Little Rock, Arkansas. I had never necessarily talked to them about cowboys, but as I started reading the stories of these cowboys in history books, I just started seeing my grandparents and their story within this bigger story. It was double faceted for me, where I was able to learn more about myself and the culture that I grew up in, in addition to being able to have the first comprehensive overview of the idea of African Americans in the west: black cowboys singing black country music, as well as string band music put in the blues and the context of cowboy music as well and doing that within a full package.

So I wanted to do a new record, and this idea of black cowboys kept dogging me. I saw that there wasn’t a modern album that had this. Of course, I’ve always been a big fan of Marty Robbins, who wrote “El Paso.” His great album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, is an epic classic. I was trying to figure out, how can I get the epicness of Marty Robbins, but not really try to do full on orchestra style like Marty Robbins was doing. I’ve been a big fan of cowboy music even though I never necessarily played it. I’ve always loved cowboy music. Grew up with it. Started in coffee houses where there were cowboy singers, pretty much all my life, so in a way it was a reclaiming of many things for me.

CITA: Would you differentiate between cowboy music and country music?

Dom: Cowboy music is funny in that way. The best definition I got from one of the legendary singers, Dylan Edwards, was that cowboy songs are just any song that a cowboy sings. Which is what makes it problematic, because in terms of material, it’s really all over the place. Cowboy music is the same type of way [as jazz], where it’s a style, but there are a couple different generations. Usually it’s themed around the lives of cowboys. It’s around ranching, shooting, riding horses, funny times. Other times, they reach out to the Gold Rush Era, other times they reach out to the Modern Era with people like Gene Autry, it’s kind of the next step of cowboy singing. So there’s a style of cowboy singing, the singing cowboy style, which is like Gene Autry, Tom Nicks, Tex Ritter, people like that.

So I break down all those different styles in this record and show off the African American cowboys and how they were interspersed within that. There was a guy, Herb Jeffries, he worked with Billy Epstein and Duke Ellington, and he made several black cowboy films in the style of Gene Autry so I reference him. Bill Pickett, who is the very first black cowboy on film, and he was a champion rodeo rider. He created a sport called bulldogging, which is where you reach over and headlock a bull and knock it to the ground. He invented that. Buffalo Soldiers, they were African American soldiers, and they were the first ones to go out west during the Civil War years and afterward, there’s a whole other culture around that.

Anyway, I could go on and on about the themes. It took me about six months to get the album recorded, but it took me about a year and a half to write it out because there was so much amazing history. I tried to make it universal so people could get into the idea, read about the subject, then research deeper. The album came out of Smithsonian Folkways, which is a wonderful independent label. Also, it’s a part of the African American Legacy recordings series, which is in conjunction with the National Museum of the African American History and Culture, D.C. I knew that coming into it, that this Legacy series existed, and I’m one of the first contemporary artists on there so I wanted to make sure and do it up real big, in terms of, being on this particular series because now it’s in the gift shop at the museum. So, when people go in there, when they look for Black Cowboys, my album is there. Which is really a righteous deed, you know?

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Buffalo Bill, ca.1875

CITA: It is fascinating, thinking historically, where these cultural cross roads gave birth to new art forms. And how history gets shaped. We heard an interview on NPR with a writer who documented how Buffalo Bill is almost single-handedly responsible for creating the cowboy myth that we think about when we think about what wild west cowboys were. But at the time of Buffalo Bill, the cowboys were mostly African Americans and Mexicans.

Dom: Yeah, absolutely. That’s part of the story there. It’s a very, very deep web of history. I touch upon Buffalo Bill a little bit, as well, because his wild west show links into the early history of circus and side shows. It goes back into this world of display art for people that want to see it. In the United States, display art became circus shows, minstrel shows, all that stuff comes out this really big, big top, sort of homegrown Americana that’s people from small towns figuring out how to make it happen. Buffalo Bill, being a guy who had such credentials as a western icon and individual, he just worked the newspapers and made the show the biggest thing it could be. It’s people side stepping the big banks and the railroads. It breaks into this whole bigger social world in which the West developed.

CITA: Right. So you’re going to have to do Black Cowboys Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three …

Dom: That’s that hope. I’d love to do a trilogy, ultimately. I just don’t know how long that would take to get that all together. In terms of material, I barely scratched the surface, as well. You can get into all sorts of interesting history with all this stuff. There was so much material to work with, I was just so glad that I was able to catch the ones I did.

CITA: You ended up writing about Bass Reeves.

Dom: Yep. I wrote about Bass Reeves. He’s the Lone Ranger. I read about him in a western book. It was Legends of the West, and he happened to be mentioned in there. I thought he just had a fascinating story, so I went and looked him up. A fellow named Archie Burton has written a book on Bass Reeves, called Black Gun Silver Star, and I just was blown away by this guy’s story. To know that the evidence around Bass Reeves’ shows that he’s the basis for The Lone Ranger, they haven’t confirmed it 100%, but it’s a really comparable story. Just to have that idea out there, it really just, again, serves the purpose of diversifying what a cowboy can be. It’s not so much that this is one narrative better than this narrative, but to diversify so people see that there’s a choice. When you choose the different parts of western culture, you find that western culture has been diverse. For better or worse, it’s been diverse for quite a long time.

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Bass Reeves was the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. He is said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed 14 outlaws.

Nat Love, another one of the famous cowboys, he was one of the few to write his own autobiography. He happened to write about his experiences becoming a Pullman Porter, and I found that several of the cowboys I read about had become porters at one point or another because I kept coming across the question of what happened to the black cowboys? It almost seemed like they disappeared from history very quickly, but to add in the element of them hustling work on the railroad after the fences in the west has been factioned off to different people, it becomes very logical story that leads into the modern Civil Rights Movement with the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. A. Phillip Randolph organized the first all-black employment union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Cars, for Pullman Porters. Over several decades, you have these guys in such prestigious positions because they’re working with the upper-class clientele. History really shows a lot of the social uplift that came through their involvement in the western culture. But a lot of the porters came from being cowboys, which was why a subtitle for the Black Cowboys record was Songs from the Trails to the Rails.

CITA: When you come to see us, you will be talking about the stories and the process and performing songs from Black Cowboys? Are you traveling with the band right now or do we get you all to ourselves?

Dom: It will just be me solo. I’ll perform and then I might read maybe one or two passages from the liner notes of poignant quotes I’ve found, but then it’s going to be featuring the Black Cowboys songs right in the middle. Of course, I’ll have some great old-time music in there. I got number five on the Bluegrass charts with Black Cowboys, so I’m also playing some Bluegrass stuff in there, some country blues.

CITA: Fantastic! So you and the banjo are going to be doing it up, we hope.

Dom: Oh yeah. It’s going to be a nice time. I picked up some good stuff. I got a gourd banjo, as well, which is a banjo made from a gourd. That references early American banjos. Beautiful sound, has a nice low tone to it, so I’ll be bringing that, as well.

CITA: Is this a four-string gourd banjo?

Dom: This one is a five string, but I have my four-string gearing like I always have. I’m going to pick some of the good, fast old-time numbers, do a couple of slow ones, and it’ll be a great time. I’ve also been featuring some great harmonica solos recently and people have been really enjoying that.

 

CITA: You are also quite accomplished at the quills and the rhythm bones. Will they be making an appearance, and can you tell us a little about what these instruments are and how you play them?

Dom: Oh, sure thing! I’ll start with the quills. The quills are like a pan pipe. It’s a bunch of cane reeds that are vertical so they’re pointing up and down. They’re from longer from the left to shorter to the right. I blow over them, similar to like you would blow over a bottle top, so they’re all in a line of nine different notes in a pentatonic scale, and I play string band music with that. The rhythm bones are two cow rib bones that I’m holding between my fingers, my pointer, middle and ring fingers. Then I turn my wrist and they sound like castanets. If you’ve ever seen a flamenco dancer, they sound like castanets. So, I start whipping some rhythm on those and it’s a good time.

CITA: Well, Dom, what a delight you are. We are so excited that you’re coming to the Straz Center. We’re ready for you to be here and hear your stories and music and have a good time with you.

Dom: Wonderful. I can’t wait to be back over at The Straz. It’s been several years. I think the last time I was there was with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I can’t wait to make it back over there. It’s going to be a real wonderful time.

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Dom Flemons performs in the Jaeb Theater Monday, Nov. 19. To hear part of this interview, tune into Act2, the Straz Center official podcast, on Soundcloud.