Dom Flemons is a walking encyclopedia of old-time American music. Singer, multi-instrumentalist, historian, scholar, collector and anthropologist are all part of his decades-long devotion to discovering and presenting music that might have been lost without his efforts to preserve it.
Flemons concerts are a unique cultural history lesson that will open your ears to the classics as well as his original songs written with a flavor of yesteryear. His repertoire spans over 100 years of American music based on African American culture. He is considered an expert player of banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, fife and rhythm bones.
“My shows are always built around the idea of showing a variety of early American music and how people have adapted those early musical styles into a unique form of American music,” Flemons explains. “There is power in showing that this music is resilient and can be relevant.”
Flemons’ most recent album, 2018’s “Black Cowboys,” was recorded as part of Smithsonian Folkways’ African American Legacy Series. The Grammy-nominated album shines a light on a little-known aspect of African-American history.
“The album is supposed to not only be a great musical record, but with its cover [by cowboy artist William Matthews] and many liner notes [40 pages filled with history and photographs] it’s meant to be an introduction to a whole host of black western cultures,” says Flemons.
It was a decade-long journey that began around 2009 when Flemons came across a copy of “The Negro Cowboys,” a 1983 book by Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones. He also began listening to the album “Black Texicans: Balladeers & Songsters”, a collection of field recordings by renowned American ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax.
After years of research, Flemons has compiled 40 songs – some old, some original, but all associated with aspects of black cowboy history. He found help narrowing down the attendance list at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an event held annually in Elko, Nevada.
“They were so excited for me to do an album of black cowboy music and present these old stories that they had known forever,” Flemons recalled. “I found new stories there, personal stories about black cowboys that they had known personally.”
Songs range from the spoken word poetry of “Ol Proc” and the fife and drum of “The March of Red River Valley” to the bluegrass “Knox County Stomp” and Flemons’ original boogie-blues “He’s a Lone Ranger,” which tells the story of Bass Reeves, a runaway slave who becomes the first African-American Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River.
Flemons grew up in Phoenix, with an African-American father and a Latina mother. He started playing guitar in college and was drawn to the early music of folk singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, which led him to Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, and Ramblin’ Jack. Elliot but also the folk-blues of Brownie. McGhee and Sonny Terry and Big Bill Broonzy.
When Flemons was in his late teens, he heard folk legend Dave Van Ronk perform at a local club; it was a defining moment for him.
“Van Ronk’s format of telling a little anecdote or historical story before each song really moved me. I was blown away that his stories helped me understand the context around the song and why the song was important to him and the people who created and played it before.
After attending Northern Arizona University, where he majored in English, Flemons eventually landed in Durham, North Carolina, where he was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that also included artist roots acclaimed Rhiannon Giddens and was known for bridging early music, bluegrass, folk and blues. Their 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig” won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
From the start, Flemons made it a mission to sit at the feet of and learn from many “tradition bearers” such as folksinger/folklorist Mike Seeger, blues guitarist-singer Boo Hanks, player old fashioned violinist Joe Thompson and many more. others.
“It was a great education,” he says, adding, “I introduce a lot of styles based on people I learned from, but they also encouraged me to develop my own style of play based on what I learned from them.”
At the start of the pandemic, Flemons and his family moved from Washington, DC, to Naperville to be closer to his wife’s family. For the past two years, he’s been busy working on songs for a new album as well as performing on Grammy-nominated Tyler Childers’ current album, “Long Violent History” (“we cut from beautiful old music”), and Negrito’s Fantastic “White Jesus Black Problems” (“his amplified rock-soul was something very different to me”).
Now Flemons is focused on getting back on stage. He thinks it’s a way to give people a boost as the country tries to master a new normal.
“It’s a way of showing people that despite everything, there is resilience and power in the music that comes from this country and the multi-faceted experiences of people that go back generations. All American music has the ability to really enlighten people.