There’s Always an Old Song Somewhere: An Interview with Dom Flemons

On Friday, April 29th, I’ll be at Symphony Space attending a live musical performance by GRAMMY award-winning musician Dom Flemons, with special guest Andy Hedges, which will be the second of three consecutive nights of Flemons’ performances at the venue. Flemons is a multi-instrumentalist singer and songwriter with a repertoire spanning a century’s worth of traditional American music. Below is an interview that I conducted with him last weekend, in anticipation of the show.

Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Ben: You are known as “The American Songster”, and I think it’s fair to say that your medium is stories about America which are told through music and poetry. That being said, as an artist, particularly, as a songster, what objectives do you have with your music?

Dom Flemons: Well, when I’m presenting music I try to focus on a general audience. I try to make sure that my music is appealing to both adults and children, in a certain sense. With that being said, the term “songster” is one that I first became familiar with through an English blues scholar, Paul Oliver, who wrote a book called Songsters and Saints. When he began to talk to different blues singers, he found that a lot of them used the term “songster” to define a musician who sang and played a lot of different types of music. As the recording industry began to blossom, the people in that industry began to create user-generated data to figure out which audiences were more likely to buy one type of record over another. This is also part of the long-lasting legacy of strict segregation in the United States, because when they started to market to a southern audience, they created “Black” and “white” categories—race records. So, the music of a “songster” is less defined by the commercial aspirations of the recording industry, but there’s still an ebb and flow between popular music and folk songs. Going into the 21st century, I decided to adapt the term “songster” to create a space where I could present multiple genres of music that fit within the broader spectrum of American music, and I focus on about 100 years of American music. I adapted the term so that my music would not need to be pigeonholed as blues, or country, or jazz, or folk. This idea was much more appealing to me than being limited to one thing or another.

Ben: Speaking of objectives, you have achieved perhaps the most sought-after objective in music—you won a GRAMMY. And on top of that, you were nominated for three GRAMMYs. Take us back to where you were at while you were making the music that would later win you a GRAMMY. What did you have going on? Was winning your main focus that you’d been striving towards for a long time, or was it kind of a happy byproduct of your work as a musical artist?

Dom Flemons: Well it was a little bit of both. The GRAMMY I won was with my previous group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which grew out of an academic event called the Black Banjo Gathering, which happened in 2005 at Appalachian State University. At the time I was a month away from getting a B.A. in English from Northern Arizona State University, which is where I’m from. When I went to the gathering, I saw, through the musicians as well as the scholarship that was being presented, that there was a need for a performing arm of the scholarship of African American contributions to string band music, such as with the banjo, the fiddle, the guitar, and the different means by which these different instruments and musical styles blended together to become the popular music that we know now. In country and western music, a lot of the pioneers of the genre were influenced by, and their music was fueled by, the African Americans who were in their communities. As I began to study the music that I was performing, I found these very interesting side stories about African American contributions. Being African American and Mexican American myself, I started to seek out these stories, and I’d start to ask people about these stories when I was on the road. So, I started to create my own scholarship based on the things I learned from these people. That’s one aspect of it.

I also began to work with the nonprofit Music Maker Relief Foundation. Once I moved to North Carolina, I worked with a lot of elder Blues singer. I would take them on the road, back them up, and learn their stories and their songs. So, as I was traveling with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I always felt very confident that we were presenting a new type of scholarship and a type of music that was much older than people’s literal living memory of the music. Some of the music was 150 years old at times, or was obscured in the fringes of folk music scholarship as it existed at the time. So, when we went to the GRAMMYs, granted, I didn’t know if we were gonna win, but once we won, I felt very fortunate. It’s a great honor and it’s a high prestige to bring into one’s music career. We were really the first African American string band that was presenting this type of music in a new type of way that wasn’t strictly relegated to the past or to a historical precedent. We were blending aspects of traditional music and also contemporizing it. So that win felt really good. I felt very confident after that one. But each step along the way there was always an element that drove me to the next step. And to this day, I feel the same way with my musical trajectory. Each time I find a new song, each time I find a new idea or I go to a new community, I find there are new stories or new pieces of information that continue to guide me to the next step, whatever that might be.

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Ben: Did winning a GRAMMY change anything for you? For example, did it kind of make you think, “Okay, now what? Where do I go from here?”

Dom Flemons: It changed a lot. Within the structure of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I was the one who spoke to the label and did all the negotiating. I was the de facto A&R man [note: “A&R” refers to “Artists and Repertoire”, the division of a record label that liaises between artists and the label]. I would also take the songs that we would all play during the jam sessions and condense them into a single CD to give to the label. I did all the speaking with the press, too. Because of my degree in English, I saw a value in making sure all the interviews and the information we put together to represent the group was tasteful as well as informative. So that was something I started with on day one with the group. I had already been playing gigs as a soloist while I was traveling out back in Arizona, so in bringing that group together, it was very important for me to make sure that the group’s work was documented properly. I saw there was a space that needed to be filled to create a milestone for Black folk music and Black roots music. I could see that the group was going to be able to fill that space.

At that point, the Black string band tradition hadn’t seen a precedent since the few recordings that’d been made maybe in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s by various groups who were being presented by folklorists. So, a modern Black string band that was younger and presenting their own information was so new to people at that time, and I saw that there was a value in that. I always made sure that the information we were putting out there would have a long-lasting quality. I also saw that, as they were collecting information for the Internet, there wasn’t lot of information about folk music in general, let alone Black string bands. People were ready for it. These were the years leading up to President Barack Obama being elected. The group was very unique in the sense that the very first time the group got on stage we got standing ovations, and we got that again at every show. That was not a typical thing to have happen. I saw that there were a lot of opportunities the group had in terms of filling in scholarship and filling in an aspect of African American music interpretation. Most of the African American folk musicians were singular performers, or maybe a duo, and a lot of them were blues singers, and string band music had been characterized as white music. Because of that, the idea of a Black string band surprised a lot of people. But when they started to hear us play, it was a whole other thing. We presented real stuff to people and that excited folks a lot. For me, on my end, it wasn’t just about presenting the old timey music exactly as it had been recorded and documented.

I was always exercising the notion that you could have aspects of country blues, Dixieland jazz, Mississippi fife and drum, and even bebop jazz. When I was playing jug with the group, I would slip in Charles Mingus licks with songs like Georgia Buck, for example. We tried to cover a wide spectrum. This idea of expanding out and building broader soundscapes has been part of my musical trajectory from the very beginning. That’s something that I noticed when I started to study genres like jazz, which is kind of a folk-based art form that slowly began to incorporate different aspects of classical music to become a different art form. On the country side, western swing took a lot of the same harmonic ideas that were being laid out by jazz and incorporated that into a style of dance music that became its own genre. I’ve always thought about things in this sort of way. That was something I tried to bring to the group. I believe that’s something that made us very popular and it won us that GRAMMY.

But I and the other two original members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops came from very different backgrounds and perspectives. Leading up to that win, we were all very much on the same page, and afterwards, everybody’s perspectives kind of evolved. Then our original singer, Justin Robinson, decided he didn’t wanna be on the road anymore, so we brought on new personnel. Shortly after that, around 2014, I decided to leave the group as well. We’d already covered so much ground, and I found that we just weren’t making much headway anymore working together.

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Ben: Your latest album, Black Cowboys, tells a story that is a century old, and it ends with a powerful work song that I had to listen to a few times because it was so compelling. The other day, I was speaking with an artist who makes Black roots music, and they said that the type of speech often given by kids selling candy on the subway in Harlem—to introduce themselves, explain what they’re selling, and why—is basically a modern-day, spoken-word work song. Are work songs a thing of the past, or are they still alive and well, and if so, where are they, and what forms do they take?

Dom Flemons: One of the most interesting things about work songs is that they will last as long as there’s work to be done. They have evolved into the nature of the work, which is itself evolving. If we think of classic work songs by John Lomax, many of those were collected in the field, at the state penitentiaries of the deep south. Part of the reason why they had those strong work song traditions is because of the back-breaking labor that was going on in the prisons. A lot of the time, because of that, music was one way for prisoners and convicts to find some sort of relief to take their minds off the strain of the work itself. If we talk about modern-day New York City, there are work songs as well, such as the ones that you mentioned. I’ve seen exactly what you’re talking about.

One of the things that make work songs and folk songs so intriguing in this context is that the song has to be clever enough for the audience to become interested. Interested enough to respond to the singer. In the example you gave, the desired response comes in the form of the audience opening their wallets and putting some money down. By the nature of that alone, you have to think about what’s appealing to the audience. That has to go beyond the satisfaction of writing the song on your own. When connecting that with the song you mentioned on Black Cowboys, Old Chisholm Trail, one of the things that struck me about that version of the song is that it has a quality like a work song.

When I was putting together Black Cowboys, I wanted to show two things. I wanted to show what I drew upon from the historical books on Black cowboys, but the second half of my research had to do with the folk song traditions that define Black cowboys themselves, which was much a much harder search than the one for the books. Because cowboy music wasn’t drawn by racial designations. Cowboys, cowboy songs, and cowboy culture was the first time there was a strong American identity and a culture associated with that which was not demeaning to anyone, and that’s something that’s very important in the context of the late 1890s going into the 1900s. By the 1900s, segregation was brought into the social and political centers of the United States, changing the way people thought about race, and identity, and culture. So, cowboy culture has this interesting place in American history because, by the nature of the cowboys’ work, racism really couldn’t evolve in the same way that it could evolve in an urban center of the United States. The easiest way I can describe this phenomenon is by using one of the early cowboy pioneers, Bones Hooks, as an example. He helped build the first Black community in Amarillo Texas. Because of his role as a pioneer of the area, he was able to walk through front doors, shake hands with prominent white people in town, and be a well-respected member of the community. They might not mention him by race in this context, but he was well-respected by the community because he was there when they first settled the community itself. There are a lot of examples of this among Black cowboys.

Going back to Old Chisholm Trail, it’s a very well-known cowboy song. There are hundreds of versions of this song that have been recorded over time. When I heard a field recording by Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, who is the source for my version of the song, I heard aspects of R&B, soul, and hip-hop in the way that he sang it. Just to give you a small example, in a typical cowboy setting the melody would be: walkin’-up cattle / I’m sittin’ a-straddle / I’m ridin’ my cattle / a whoop-a-diddle-a-yay-a-yay / a whoop-a-diddle-a-yay. It’s a very sing-songy melody. But when Clear Rock Platt recorded his version, there’s an emphasis on rhythm and there’s a strong harmonic emphasis. Also, the things he’s talking about are the struggles of a cowboy on the range. Those things move me, and those things, to me, define “black cowboys” as a song style. It’s also a great way to dovetail into the song Black Woman. I wanted to show a different aspect of the field holler work song tradition by showing a love song sung in a related style. A lot of the cowboys on the range, they didn’t necessarily have instruments, so there’s an aspect of the cowboy song tradition that’s based solely on the voice, the vocal sounds the cowboys made. Another thing about work songs that I read about was that Charlie Willis, who is the source of my song Goodbye Old Paint, was said to have had a soothing voice, which he’d use to soothe the cattle out on the range so they wouldn’t stampede. That was one reason why he was a well-loved cowboy. His voice served as both entertainment for his fellow cowboys and a way to keep the cattle calm.

Work songs are interesting in a way because even out here in Chicago you can find people doing work songs. You know that famous Saturday Night Live skit where they say “Cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger” [note: the skit’s name is “The Olympia Restaurant: Cheeseburger, Chips and Pepsi”], well, there is in fact an actual burger shop [note: the shop’s name is “The Billy Goat Tavern”] where they have a work song that goes “Cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger, double-cheese, the best!” It serves two functions: it has to be an appealing sound for the year, but it also has to tell you exactly what you’re selling. There has to be a compelling enough melody to bring people to you, and then once they’re listening to you up close, it has to be compelling enough that they’re going to buy whatever you’re selling.

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Ben: Aside from work songs, is there any other kind of song or poem that, in your view, many people think is a thing of the past, but that you would argue is actually alive and well?

Dom Flemons: I would always contest anyone who says that a song form is completely dead, because there are moments—like a prehistoric fossil to an archaeologist—when well-known, old-time folk songs emerge out of the blue in places where you wouldn’t expect them to appear. When I met Lou Hanks back in 2006, he played a combination of Blind Boy Fuller numbers and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and a couple early songs from Brownie McGhee. This was very unique, because a lot of the other slightly younger musicians from the area were instead mostly playing songs by Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, and Fats Domino—songs that are defined by the R&B of the 40s and 50s. Granted, these musicians would adapt the songs into something that fit their style. But because of Lou’s age and the particular area where he lived, he had a lot of old-timey material that he had kept in his repertoire, that he had never recorded until 2006. He’d been playing the songs for 70 years! So, without anybody knowing it, Lou was preserving a wonderful tradition of his area of Virginia and North Carolina, for only his own benefit. There’s always a notion that folk music can survive no matter what, whether or not it becomes popular or mainstream or well-known to most listeners. There’s always an old song somewhere. There’s always going to be tradition-bearers preserving the songs for one reason or another. It’s all just a matter of whether we listeners decide to seek them out.

Ben: All of this raises a broader question: to what extent is it true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? In music, in life, or in whatever.

Dom Flemons: You know, I left Arizona because I was drawn to the sound of folk music of different sorts, and of old-time music and blues. But I didn’t know if I was going to meet more musicians who played the type of music I was interested in. In my local area I had maybe one or two friends who were interested in the same type of music I was, but it wasn’t the type of music that most of the community was playing, so I was somewhat of an anomaly. I was playing acoustic music while most people my age were playing rock music that was popular at the time. I was also an anomaly because I was as an artist of color, and because I was very young. Even when I went out to North Carolina and met a lot of scholars at the Black Banjo Gathering I still didn’t really know if I would meet other people who played the type of music I was interested in. But ultimately I found that there were a lot of likeminded musicians out there, and this was an age demographic that went from 20-90 years old sometimes. There was also so much broadness in terms of who was playing, and why, and for how long. So it was really just a matter of seeking it out.

Taking more of a scholarly approach, I was also drawn to Dave van Roth, who had a great way of telling stories that would give context for his songs, so that the song wouldn’t seem so far away from the current moment. This caused the audience to feel like they were learning, but in another sense, they were being guided by a storyteller who was allowing them to be part of these stories that were far removed from the current time and place.

When I saw that there was an opportunity to travel and perform more, I’d go to the local libraries and folklore societies and ask them about the musicians who’d been there. And it was a two-way street as well, because, for example, I might play a song by Elizabeth Cotton, and there’d be someone in the audience who’d met her. Though I could not have met her because she’d passed away before I’d started performing out there, the person who’d met her could tell me stories about her and connect me to her. Another example is that there were five or six different times that I would hit up Odetta, because she was a respected legacy artist who’d been around for so long. There was a lot of room to just walk up to her, talk to her about whatever, and tell her how much I appreciated her work. Whenever someone in town had made something I’d really enjoyed, I made a point of telling them that they really inspired me, which they appreciated, and I saw value in that.

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Ben: As you know, live music was one of the first things to go when the pandemic hit, and only kind of recently has live music been coming back. So this might actually be one of the best times in history to be a performing musician, because you are positioned to give people something they’re really hungry for. Is that something you think about?

Dom Flemons: I have thought about it a lot actually. Right before the pandemic began, I started to see that the music I was presenting had a certain power that allowed people to be reminded of their humanity. I found that as technology has become more of a prevalent aspect of each person’s life, I’ve audiences have been more interested in the stories and the cultural aspects of the songs I present on stage. And in some ways, they find a comfort in hearing the music and being able to ground themselves in the notion that the United States has its own musical traditions. There’s always been a little bit of that going on from the very beginning. Especially people from the South, if they happen to see me, many will mention that they remember hearing the music I’m playing back when they were growing up, often from someone in their family. So, if I’m playing harmonica and someone had a grandfather who played harmonica there can be an emotional connection. I can become a conduit for their old memories. As things are starting to open up again, people have become much more attentive. I think this is also a result of streaming being so prevalent as well. People can access songs at the push of a button. People seem to have a renewed interest in live music, even more than ever before.

When crafting a setlist, I’ve found there’s a power in having wordless songs. Moments where there are no words have a value as well, because we’re being pummeled with words constantly simply through being alive. But yeah, people love live music so I can only imagine that people want to hear more songs, more stories, and they want to get up close and personal with the musicians that they love. I’ve seen a new appreciation. The time off allowed me to revisit documents and records, so I’m coming to my shows feeling strong that the music I’ve put together has a lasting value, and is a type of music that is appealing to people still, even the Black Cowboys music. To see that the project and the album have remained so strong in people’s minds is a testament to the work I’ve put in. Especially since people are not used to thinking about full-length albums being listened to in one sitting.

Ben: At the first night of your upcoming show there will be projections of historic images to accompany your musical performance. Can you talk a little about what the process of choosing the images was like? What specific qualities did the images you selected need to have?

Dom Flemons: That’s a great question. There are several songs I have that are connected with musicians who have iconic images already. So, there’s an aspect of taking a striking image of a musician who originally played a song that I’ll be interpreting on stage. Having had a chance to work with Timothy Duffy for many years, I’ll be showing several silver nitrate plate photos that he and I collaborated on and created in the studio. We actually used the first photographic process that followed the daguerreotype leading into the early 20th century. Tim’s become a specialist at using the Deardorff 11×14 camera. We made close to a couple of hundred images, mostly in secret, in the first couple of years of this work. I have all these tintype form images where I’m doing everything from mimicking old-timey photos, to taking very high-quality close-up portraiture that showcases different aspects of my music in one form or another. In the liner notes of Black Cowboys, I feature quite a few tintypes. There’ll probably be a couple other ones at the show that are more general images that I might get from the Library of Congress or from a private collection.

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Ben: On the second night of your upcoming show, you’ll be playing with Andy Hedges, and on the third night, you’ll be playing with Tony Trischka. Can you talk a little about why you chose these particular artists to play with, and how your relationships with them got started?

Dom Flemons: Around 2015 I got in touch with Andy, who was considering calling himself the Cowboy Songster, which he does now, and he wanted to make sure it was okay to call himself that. He interprets the repertoire of quite a few legendary cowboy singers and poets, so we began to talk because of that. Andy had invited me to a conference, and when I went there, Andy recited a poem by Wally McRae that I do on Black Cowboys, called Ol’ Proc. Andy and I just became fast friends, and we’ve kept up for many years. Whenever we have a chance to get together—this is not our first performance together—it’s been a real treat to be able to swap stories about cowboy songs, and about some of the lives that created this magnificent music. I’ll play harmonica and bones with Andy, who’ll play backup guitar and six-string banjo. He and I are fairly likeminded. He created his own podcast, Cowboy Crossroads, where he’s put together about 100 episodes, so he’s also a great documentarian as well, and he’s really modernized the way people look at cowboy singing and cowboy songs.

Tony Trischka, I’ve been a fan of his work for many, many years, and I’m a big fan of his album Territory. I met him at the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. He and I worked on a documentary called Give Me the Banjo which came out in 2012. He’s the executive producer, and I star as a talking head giving my take on Gus Cannon, the great African American banjo player from the 1920s. We’ve had a chance to perform on stage several different times together. We have quite a shared repertoire between the two of us, so we’re going to be presenting a myriad of banjo styles. He has hundreds of banjos. I will be bringing with me four different banjos including a 4-string, a 5-string, and a 6-string. Also my usual plectrum banjo. We’re gonna be whooping it up pretty well. I’ll play bones and harmonica with him and I’m definitely considering bringing my marching bass drums.

Ben: Dom, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Is there anything else you’d like the readers of Big City Folks to know?

Dom Flemons: In spite of all the history we’re talking about, the music is meant to be enjoyable and is meant to uplift people’s spirits so that they can feel grounded in the power of the music. As people are listening, whether they’re interested in the deep history or whether they just wanna hear some wonderful music, they’re gonna find a little bit of both.