Repurposing the past for the future
Dom Flemons discusses his aims and ambitions as ‘The American Songster’
Every Dom Flemons concert is equal parts musical treat and history lesson. Between and within foot-stomping, finger-snapping, heart-rending songs both familiar and neglected, Flemons imparts an insightful, scholarly take on the American cultural experience. This Saturday at 9 p.m., the co-founder and former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops brings his solo traveling musical seminar cum back porch hoedown to Eddie’s Attic in Decatur.
Since leaving the Chocolate Drops in 2014, Flemons has blazed a path as “The American Songster.” An accomplished songwriter, producer, actor, slam poet, music historian and multi-instrumentalist, Flemons excels on the banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, fife and “bones.” His repertoire covers more than a century of early American popular music, crisscrossing genres from bluegrass, country and folk to the blues, old-time and the amorphous amalgam known as Americana.
In 2020, Flemons received a United States Artists Fellowship Award for the Traditional Arts category. Also last year, he released Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus on Omnivore Recordings. The double-CD features the original Prospect Hill album, the 2015 EP What Got Over and The Drum Major Instinct. His original song, “I Can’t Do It Anymore,” was released on a limited edition wax cylinder recording.
In 2018, Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys was nominated for a GRAMMY for “Best Folk Album.” The album, which reached number four on the Billboard bluegrass chart, is part of the African American Legacy Recordings series. That same year, Flemons made his solo debut at the Grand Ole Opry and was the first Artist-in-Residence at the “Making American Music Internship Program” at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Recently, Flemons released a cover of the Elmore James classic “Shake Your Money Maker,” recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis and accompanied by Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band and guitarist Steve Cropper. He played six-string banjo, quills, and bones on Tyler Childers Long Violent History and played jug on the soundtrack to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Flemons currently lives in the Chicago area with his family.
Creative Loafing: In all of your public projects, from the Carolina Chocolate Drops to the Black Cowboys and more recent ventures, your mission seems to be as much about delivering educational content as it is about performing music.
Dom Flemons: Creating awareness about different ‘styles’ of early American music has always been at the forefront of my performances. This includes songs that I’ve written, as well as my interpretations of traditional material. One of the main reasons I became a professional musician was because I saw there was a need for more people to showcase traditional music on stage.
As an avid reader with a BA in English, the literature of folk music, the blues and all types of American music have been of interest to me. When I went to the Black Banjo Gathering academic conference in 2005, I began to see that there was a complex story about African American string band music. The modern study of the “Black Banjo,” whether it was the African, Caribbean, or African American roots of the instrument, was still in its infancy. The Gathering served as a conduit for a new discussion of the banjo’s role in American music.
After the Gathering in 2005, I decided to move from my home state of Arizona to North Carolina because I was passionate about learning and documenting the traditional music that I had heard on records and had read about in books. Leading up to the Gathering, I was already proficient in playing the guitar, harmonica, jug and four-string banjo. I am self-taught on all of these instruments with my only formal training coming from my years of playing in a four-bass-drum line in the high school marching band. I had also begun to tell stories about the songs in my show.
In 2001, I had a chance to see and meet the legendary folk singer Dave Van Ronk whose easygoing style of song and story intrigued me. I started formatting my own shows in a similar manner. This led to over a decade of playing music and backing up a variety of musicians from all types of genres. My 15 years as a professional musician has taken me across the United States and as far as the UK, Europe, Malaysia, and Australia.
Is there an existing category or genre that describes your music and performance style?
There are a lot of ways to describe my music; however, my main genres are country, blues, and folk. With the variety of styles I play in my shows, I have always struggled with a proper way to describe all of the facets of my music. That was the appeal of being labeled a “songster” for me. When I began to read about the role of these musicians in their original context, I was elated to find that they represented everything I wanted to convey in my work.
In the years before recorded music, the songster was a human jukebox playing a wide range of styles. As recording companies began to hyper-focus their marketing to create genre categories for the emerging record business, songsters began to narrow their repertoires to the demands of the buying public by becoming “blues” and “country” artists.
The relationship between bluegrass, country, jazz, blues, folk and what we now call Americana and old-time is a complex one, which invites interpretation along racial/ethnic lines. Is it possible to express a comprehensive summation of the parts?
I feel it can be done. I make it my goal to do so at every one of my shows. I present songs that come from different parts of the American experience. The source material comes from musicians of rural and urban backgrounds. The songs I write come from my experiences, as well as the experiences of other African Americans who lived over 100 years ago. Some stories are happy and some are sad. Some songs are dance music and others are meant to be listened to intently for full effect.
In my travels I have collected rare instruments that in their own ways tell the story of America. These include the gourd banjo, a modern interpretation of what scholars think the 5-string banjo might have sounded like when it was first played by enslaved Africans. The quills or panpipes are found around the world, but I am one of the only modern interpreters of this esoteric American art form. The rhythm bones, which were introduced to me in North Carolina, are literally cow rib bones, held between the fingers, and played like the castanets. My audiences have always enjoyed seeing them played.
This combination of performative styles and rare instruments is mixed with commentary and stories about the songs. As I collect stories, I try to present them so that people can hear about the obscure histories within American culture. The songs talk about people’s lives and feelings. Several of them are my own thoughts on my experiences as a traveling musician.
Is the type of American music we’re talking about an authentic expression of the proverbial “melting pot”?
The basic concept is sound. The United States of America is fifty states on the map but that doesn’t begin to represent the country and its people on the ground level. This is why folk music in all of its forms will forever peak my interest. Sometimes folk music can live in the most isolated communities of the country while it can also come from your neighbor next door in a major metropolitan city. It’s music for the old and young because it has universal appeal.
People from all around America love folk music but there is humor, love, heartbreak, sadness, triumph and struggle in this music which causes it to be easily relatable. Also, the music brings together hundreds of different cultures and ancestral history, which invokes cultural memory.
Bluegrass and jazz share characteristics including an emphasis on syncopation, improvisation and virtuosic instrumental performance. I’ve heard you mention that bluegrass and bebop, particularly, evolved at roughly the same time. Can we add “swing” to the list of musical traits linking bluegrass and jazz? Are there distinguishing technical aspects to this equation that merit highlighting?
Over the years, I’ve studied beats and the movement of human bodies responding to music. Every song has a beat, whether it’s with a full band or a cappella. The melody of a song attracts the ear. When they come together, it can tell the whole story of an entire community. If you can reach that deep into a beat then you can find the pocket. The pocket is the space where a song can open up to allow for some improvisation.
I arrange my songs to allow improvisation so that the music can ebb and flow with the audience as they’re listening. Jazz and bluegrass are built on these same foundations. Even though the styles sound very different, each one relies on a solid pocket to launch the sound into improvisation.
The old-time music that preceded bluegrass was more oriented toward social dancing very similar to swing. Part of the appeal of old-time music is that it isn’t based on improvisation. That shocked me at first when I began to study the style. Having grown up with popular music leaning toward more funk or rock or however you call progressive minded music, to learn a style that relies only on the subtlest melodic and rhythmic variation was a challenge. It also gave me a powerful education in making music built on tradition, which can also stimulate the imagination.
Why did you embrace the title “American Songster?”
As I mentioned before, I became interested in the term “songster” before I left Arizona. As I began to travel the world I found that my purpose as a musician began to reach beyond the stage. I was being asked to speak about the music I was playing. I started writing articles for publication and I began to use my social media platform as a way to advocate for musicians and writers in my community who also wanted to raise public awareness of the old-time styles. Wishing to have a title that described both my music as well as my purpose as a historian I came up with “The American Songster” to showcase both.
Since 2009, I’ve used the title in my performances but I’ve also created a radio show (American Songster Radio) and my own company (American Songster Productions) using the moniker. I embraced the title because it’s something that is both rooted in the past and the present.
In the 21st century, most music listeners have an eclectic taste and as the American Songster I can educate the audience by playing a variety of songs which I’ve meticulously curated to give an entertaining and varied performance.
Why did you make a wax cylinder recording?
How could I not make a wax cylinder? I have always enjoyed the aesthetics of the turn of the 20th century and the wax cylinder was no different. I have taken photographs on tintype cameras and there is nothing like using this vintage technology of the past to tell a story of the present. It was also a treat to know that my cylinder was one of the first wax cylinders released on a commercial label in about a hundred years.
In addition, I’ve made four wax cylinders in my music career for the Center for Popular Music in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Every time, it’s been great to hear my recordings playing out of an acoustic horn.
Do you know in advance what your setlist at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta will look like? What songs can the audience anticipate hearing?
I have a good idea of the songs I will be playing in my show. As I mentioned before, I try to showcase a comprehensive setlist featuring a variety of songs, styles and instruments. Many of the songs will be from my albums Black Cowboys and Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus, but I will more than likely bring in a few additional songs as I get inspired by the audience.
As someone who appears to favor traditional styles and influences, what does the future hold for exploration within the music that compels you?
There is no end to the study of traditional music because there are thousands of songs from over a hundred years ago that are waiting to be reinterpreted. Even with all of the material I have acquired thus far, there are more songs and stories being unearthed every day.
Some of the exploration is about looking deeper into the archives and finding new insights as a 21st century person. Another part is the repurposing of this older music into something that reflects modern American history and is exciting for the general public to hear for the first time. When the public can see themselves in their music and hear the stories beneath the surface, the more they will be able to embrace it as their American identity. —CL—
Dom Flemons at Eddie’s Attic, 515 N. McDonough St., Saturday, June 5, 9 p.m. General admission, $15; table seating $60, plus fees and sales tax.