Dom Flemons’ old-time songs celebrate the many traditions of American music
His repertoire covers over 100 years of American music based in African-American culture.
Dom Flemons is a walking encyclopedia of old-time American music. Singer, multi-instrumentalist, historian, scholar, collector and anthropologist are all elements of his decades-long devotion to uncovering and presenting music that might have been lost if not for his effort to preserve it.
Flemons’ concert performances are a unique cultural history lesson that will open your ears to classics as well as his original songs written with an old-time flavor. His repertoire covers over 100 years of American music based in African American culture. He is considered an expert player on the banjo, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills, fife and rhythm bones.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 18
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln
“My shows are always built around the idea of showing a variety of early American music and the ways people have adapted these old-time musical stylings into a unique form of American music,” Flemons says. “There is a 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 meant not only to be a great musical record but along with its cover art [by cowboy artist William Matthews] and extensive liner notes [40 pages filled with history and photographs] it’s meant to be an introduction to a multitude of Black western culture,” Flemons says.
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 started listening to the album “Black Texicans: Balladeers & Songsters,” a collection of field recordings by famed American ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax.
After years of research, Flemons compiled 40 songs — some oldies, some original,but all associated with aspects of Black cowboy history. He found help narrowing the list from the people at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an event held annually in Elko, Nevada.
“They were so excited that I was doing an album of Black cowboy music and presenting these old stories that they had known forever,” Flemons recalls. “I found new stories there, personal stories about Black cowboys that they had known personally.”
The 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-driven “Knox County Stomp” and Flemons’ boogie-blues original “He’s a Lone Ranger,” which recounts the story of Bass Reeves, an escaped 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 junior high 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 seminal moment for him.
“Van Ronk’s format of telling a little bit of an historical anecdote or story before every song really moved me. I was blown away that his stories allowed me to understand the context around the song and why the song was important to him and the people who originated and played it beforehand.”
After attending Northern Arizona University, where he majored in English, Flemons would eventually land in Durham, North Carolina, where he was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band that also featured acclaimed roots artist Rhiannon Giddens and was known for bridging old-timey music, bluegrass, folk and blues. Their 2010 album “Genuine Negro Jig” won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.
From the beginning, Flemons made it his mission to sit at the feet of and learn from many of the “tradition bearers” such as folk singer/folklorist Mike Seeger, blues guitarist-singer Boo Hanks, old-time fiddle player Joe Thompson and many others.
“It was a great education,” he says, adding, “I present a lot of styles based off of people I learned from, but they also encouraged me to develop my own style of playing based on what I learned from them.”
At the start of the pandemic, Flemons and his family left Washington, D.C., for Naperville to be closer to his wife’s family. During the past two years he’s kept busy working on songs for a new album as well as performing on Tyler Childers’ current Grammy-nominated album, “Long Violent History” (“we cut some beautiful old-time music”), and the Fantastic Negrito’s “White Jesus Black Problems” (“his amped up rock-soul was something very different for me”).
Now Flemons is focused on getting back on stage. He feels it’s a way to give people a boost as the country tries to get a handle on a new normal.
“It’s a way to show people that in spite of it all there’s a resilience and power to the music that comes from this country and the multi-faceted experiences of people that go back generations. The whole of American music has the ability to really enlighten people.”