By Amanda Reed
Current Staff Writer
Dom Flemons, a Grammy-winning folk artist who is known as “The American Songster,” answered a few questions from the Pittsburgh Current before his performance tonight as part of Just Summer concert series, presented by Chamber Music Pittsburgh, at 8 p.m. at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty. Below, he talks about his latest album, “Black Cowboys,” his style and what the future holds.
On the concept of his latest album, Black Cowboys
The concept behind Black Cowboys came from a few different sources. First, I came across a book, The Negro Cowboys by Phillip Durham. In the book the author describes that as much as one-fourth of the cowboys who settled the West were African American. Having grown up in Phoenix, Arizona, I was aware of the African American culture of the Southwest and how it was a unique part of Western culture. Shortly after reading The Negro Cowboys, I came across a CD called Black Texicans that showcased the Black Cowboy songs that had been recorded John and Alan Lomax in their early documentary field recordings. It was from these two sources that I kept the idea of doing an album on Black Cowboys in the future. I quickly realized that a comprehensive album on the subject was not available. I decided to correct that with the help of Smithsonian Folkways and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
On the album’s organization
I have about 4 major sections: The History of Cowboy Music, Songs by Black Cowboys, Black Songsters and Soundscapes. These four sections I felt covered the material I was working with to get my point across. I didn’t want to assume that people would know much about cowboy music so it was important for me to add a few well-known cowboy songs such as Little Joe the Wrangler and Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail. Two songs, “Home on the Range” and “Goodbye Old Paint” are songs that have stories associated with Black Cowboys in one form or another. “Home on the Range” was collected from a black cowboy cook by John Lomax and transcribed to sheet music later becoming the state song of Kansas. “Goodbye Old Paint” was also collected by John Lomax but this song was sung by a white fiddler Jess Morris who references a former slave named Charley Willis as the source for the song. The Black Songster who recorded in the 1920’s and on were descendants of the Western pioneers I am speaking about. Songsters such as Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas and Vera Ward Hall all feature music that reflects this history. Finally, several songs were short instrumental pieces that give a mood that reflects the history. “The March of Red River Valley” is a fife and drum version of the well-known cowboy song and is tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers and the man African American veterans. “John Henry y los vaqueros” is a sparse fiddle and rhythm bones rendition of the well-known African American folksong about the steel-driving man. When one begins to understand the history of the West and the transition of horse and buggys to railroad lines the story takes on a whole new perspective. Through these sections, I elaborate on quite a few subjects from African American women of the West to the early movement of the Exodusters, one of the first African American communities to leave the South and build a new community out West. One of the most famous of these pioneers was the scientist George Washington Carver. The history gets quite elaborate.”
On the original songs on the album
I wrote three songs for the record covering subjects that couldn’t find a song for when I put the album together. “One Dollar Bill” is a fantasy song that evokes the image of the Black Hollywood Cowboy with all of the action of a blockbuster film. “Steel Pony Blues” is a plaintive country blues number that is partially inspired by the black Cowboy Nate Love, also known as Deadwood Dick, as well as my grandfather Rev. Raymond Flemons. Both men worked in the Northern Arizona town of Holbrook, Arizona. Finally, “He’s A Lone Ranger” is about the famous Western lawman Bass Reeves who was the first Deputy US Marshall of the United States who was African American. His elaborate life story is said to be the basis for the fictional character the Lone Ranger. Taking my musical cues from blues songster, Sam “Lightnin’’” Hopkins, I decided to write a song describing his story. I have always tried to write songs that carry the same feeling as the old-time songs. For me, it’s important to make musical choices that are reflective of the history as well as my own musical choices as a modern performer. Having delved deep into so many styles, I pick and choose what I feel will tell the best story for the subject manner.
On the evolution of his style
I have a lot of influences. I listen to a lot of music. I own around 5,000 records and I know them all very well. I’ve also met a slew of musicians and tradition bearers who have helped shape my view of the music and the presentation of it on stage. From the first moment I became a professional musician, I could see the need for interpreters as well as songwriters. This is one of the main reasons I have tried to straddle the line and play both songs I have written wholesale and traditional songs. My style has changed many times in my years of playing music. It took a new turn around 2014 when I found there was a need for more storytellers that could tell the history of this country. I think that through the use of historic songs can show the ways that the United States has changed and also remained the same over the past few centuries.”
On the history behind Black Cowboys
Knowing your history is one of the most important things one can know. When you know your history you can preserve or change history as an informed individual. For example, Black Cowboys might be a subject that folks might not know. That does not mean it’s any less important than other information about the West. At the same time, understanding this history doesn’t necessarily negate or take away from the information people already know. Adding to one’s knowledge is power. My desire is to always share the power knowledge to all of my listeners.
On his position as Artist-in-Residence at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
At the NMAH, I am working with four interns who are all tradition bearers. We started out he program by seeing what they were interested in. They presented material to me and I critiqued their material based on performance, intent and flow of narrative to give them the skills to develop their own show. We are halfway through as I write and they have developed musical sets for the collective group, individual performance and sets based on material they have found in the museum. I have done this type of work since I began playing out professionally. Many times, people put together material not knowing what or why they do it. My hope is to have each of my interns walking away with the skills to be their own American Songster who can perform their music as well as fully explain why they do it and why it is important.
On current projects
It took my two years to finish the Black Cowboys album so I don’t have any new recording I’m doing at the moments that I can put my full energy into this one. With that being said, I have the internship at the Smithsonian, the second season of my podcast American Songster Radio, I am touring all year long including appearance on stages such as the Grand Ole Opry and I have also become a new father to a beautiful little daughter. There is always more material to cover and I know that it won’t be too long before I have grab another project out of my back pocket and put it to use. Having now connected with Smithsonian Folkways I know there will be many exciting ideas coming in the near future.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity