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When the Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005, most people didn’t really associate old-time string band music with African-American culture. But over the better part of the last decade, the group introduced audiences around the world to that aspect of American roots music.
By 2013, Dom Flemons, one of Carolina Chocolate Drops’ founding members, had accomplished all that he wanted with the group and decided to part ways. He was at a creative crossroads.
“If you’ve got a band and a group name, then people can cling to that. If you’re just an individual, that’s a little trickier,” Flemons recalls. “For me, I had to figure out how I could create an idea that was going to be bigger than just myself as an individual.”
The concept Flemons arrived at was that of “The American Songster.” Songster, as Flemons describes it, is a term that predates genre labels like “blues” and “country,” which are often used as categories within American roots music. The word refers to performers who played music of different varieties that eventually developed into the forms that exist today.
After leaving Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons released a solo album, 2014’s Prospect Hill, and duo albums on which he collaborated with Piedmont blues guitarist Boo Hanks and English folk musician Martin Simpson.
But Flemons’ latest recording, Black Cowboys, released late last month, takes his musical acumen and historical pursuits to a new level, exploring the experiences of African-Americans on the western frontier.
“I tried to make it ‘Black Cowboy 101,’” Flemons says, only somewhat jokingly.
Black Cowboys shines a light on a component of African-American history that is neither taught in schools nor part of the imagery associated with America’s western expansion. Flemons became interested in the subject around 2009. He came across a copy of The Negro Cowboys, a 1983 book by Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones, while visiting family in his native Arizona. He also started listening to the album Black Texicans: Balladeers & Songsters around the same time, which is a collection of field recordings by famed American ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax.
Flemons’ research into black cowboy culture gave him insights into many of the major social developments that took place during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once he had a basic understanding of the role black cowboys played, he started looking into the black townships that existed out west, the history of religious movements in the region, and the legal and social divisions that existed up to, and after, the Civil War.
Cumulatively, the research he conducted for the album establishes a narrative that runs contrary to the popular image of cowboys, generally, and frontier African-Americans, in particular. Popular images of the latter are limited to Cleavon Little’s character in Blazing Saddles and a few other examples, most of them less than positive. Flemons’ work also shows that the idea of the United States being home to a multi-ethnic and multi-faceted culture has faced resistance since its inception.
As Flemons puts it, “This album is a great introduction, so for anybody who’s never heard of this stuff, they can hear it, they can read about it, and they can say, ‘OK, this is what this is about.’”
The songs and history that Flemons discovered mirrored his own family’s history. His second great-grandfather was a slave and his grandfather took the family out west, eventually settling in Flagstaff, Arizona. Flemons himself was born and raised in the Phoenix area with an African-American father and a Latina mother. He started playing guitar in junior high school and was drawn to music from the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s.
After earning a degree in English, he stopped playing music and got into the slam poetry scene, performing at two national poetry slams. Flemons returned to music after becoming interested in the music of the ’20s and ’30s. He left Arizona and settled in North Carolina after attending the first Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. Among the musicians he encountered at this event were Joe Thompson, an elder of the African-American string band tradition, as well as Rhiannon Giddens and the other artists that would go on to form the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
In 2015, Flemons approached Smithsonian Folkways Recordings after developing the concept behind Black Cowboys. The record company traces its roots to 1948, when founder Moses Asch had the initial goal of making an encyclopedia of sounds. His focus later shifted to creating an anthology of sounds that would be relevant to people in the United States across generations.
The label became quite popular—home to folk music’s “holy trinity”— Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger—along with Ella Jenkins, the label’s best-selling artist. The Smithsonian Institution acquired the original Folkways collection in 1987, after Asch’s passing, and thus Smithsonian Folkways was born.“We’ve sort of become the national museum of sound,” says Huib Schippers, Director and Curator of Smithsonian Folkways. “We’ve got over 50,000 tracks available.”
Schippers, who came to Smithsonian Folkways in 2016 after creating and directing a pioneering music research center at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, has a history of working with organizations that are trying to navigate periods of change. For Folkways, the main challenges are the collapse of the traditional recording industry and restoring the label to the relevance it had 50 or 60 years ago.
While he hopes that signing younger artists like Flemons will help address the second problem, the economic challenge is more pressing. One way to address it is by working with other entities that have their own funding streams. Folkways is working on collections for the Latino and Asian Pacific American centers at the Smithsonian, but its most visible collaborator is the National Museum of African American History And Culture.
Flemons, who performed at the NMAAHC’s opening ceremonies in 2016, is releasing his album as part of the African American Legacy Series that was created in 2007, long before the NMAAHC had a physical space. The collection includes reissues and compilations drawn from the Folkways catalog, unreleased archival material, and new recordings by contemporary artists. Releases include readings of Frederick Douglass’ oratory and several projects that are still in the pipeline, the most ambitious of which is the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop And Rap, a broad compilation that should be available for purchase by the end of the year.
For Dwan Reece, Curator of Music and Performing Arts at the NMAAHC, Black Cowboys fits in perfectly with her goal of identifying and filling in gaps within the museum’s collection. In particular, she is interested in how region and place have shaped various musical traditions.
“It gets back to what the museum is all about: telling the story of African-Americans from a variety of perspectives,” Reece says. “The museum is not just a building of exhibits; it’s an active, breathing entity.”
In addition to creating music for the Smithsonian, Flemons is going to curate an internship at the National Museum of American History for young folk musicians and folk scholars. All of this work led him to relocate to Silver Spring, where he and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their first child.
Both Smithsonian Folkways and the NMAAHC gave Flemons a wide berth when it came to developing Black Cowboys. He compiled 40 songs and he narrowed the list with help from people at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a music and poetry festival that is in its 35th year. The 18 tracks were recorded over two sessions in 2016 and Flemons wrote the detailed liner notes with his wife and chose the album’s imagery.
He had several goals in mind in choosing the material. First, Flemons wanted to select songs that are associated with black cowboys, and so he included “Home on the Range” and “Goodbye Old Paint.” He chose Gail Gardner’s “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail” and “Little Joe the Wrangler” as examples of classic cowboy repertoire. “Steel Pony Blues” is a song Flemons wrote to describe how many African-American cowboys used their knowledge of the region to climb the social ladder by becoming Pullman porters on western rail lines.
Other original songs include “He’s a Lone Ranger,” which tells the story of Bass Reeves, an escaped slave who became the first African-American Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi and is thought to be the factual basis for The Lone Ranger character. “Black Woman” opens the album and looks at the frontier through an African-American woman’s eyes.
Flemons will be taking deep dives into each of the tracks on the album on his American Songster Radio podcast, which he puts out with WUNC, a public radio station in North Carolina. He hopes that all of this work generates a conversation that extends beyond the music itself.
“I’ve never tried to be a political act in [and] of itself,” he says, “but I try to at least present history and music that get people thinking about ‘what does all that mean?’”
Dom Flemons performs next on April 24th at The Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW. Sold out. (202) 769-0122. live.thehamiltondc.com. He’ll also be performing June 9th at the Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival, kingmanislandbluegrass.info, and June 17th at The Birchmere’s Old Time Banjo Festival, facebook.com/MikeSeegerotbanjofest.