Dom Flemons and the Unsung Stories of America
Dom Flemons isn’t exaggerating when he says I’ve caught him at a good time. A week earlier, he played his first show in his hometown of Phoenix since he left Arizona in 2005. A few days later, he took the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for a New Year’s Eve performance which was picked up and broadcast on the Grand Ole Opry. All of this closing out a year in which he was named to the board of directors of Folk Alliance International and performed on the Washington Mall as part of the grand opening of the National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture.
Yet the first thing he wants to talk about is Arizona. His childhood. His family. His time as a student in Flagstaff, where I first met him: a 19 year-old kid strolling the campus Northern Arizona University with a flannel shirt buttoned to the collar and a guitar permanently affixed across his chest. There’s an ocean between then and now. In the years since, he has gone on to perform at such illustrious venues as the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, to earn a Grammy Award with his extraordinary band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and to become one of the most respected folk musicians of his generation.
And yet it’s Arizona he wants to talk about. How his music is beginning to circle back there to include the story of his own family, and how the roots of who he is, and how he performs, took hold in the soil of his home state.
“Arizona taught me to play hard to whip an audience into a frenzy,” he says. But he also points out how much he learned about storytelling in those early days. In 2001, he went to see Dave Van Ronk perform at the Fiddler’s Dream in Phoenix, just a few months before the legendary singer’s passing.
“It changed the way I performed. Van Ronk would tell a story leading into each song, and they were funny and interesting. It made the songs more vibrant and alive.”
It’s typical of Flemons that he would immediately credit someone else for something that shows up in his work. During our conversation, he offers a list of influences that ranges from Gordon Lightfoot to Afrika Bambaataa. And his commitment to the work of others makes him not just a solid songwriter and performer, but a chronicler and archivist for music in danger of being lost.
“I need to be a performer,” he says. “But I need to be someone who is writing it down as well, so that a hundred years from now people can read about it.”
It’s an approach that has allowed Flemons to continually grow his audience. After seeing Van Ronk, Flemons began to experiment with different ways he could capture an audience without an instrument. He began to tell stories during his sets. He watched silent film comedians, noticing how they captured people with a distinctive look (“You saw the glasses and the hat and you knew it was Harold Lloyd”). And he also looked to another group of performers that were new in Flagstaff at that time: Slam poets.
“A lot of the rudiments of slam poetry I’m still using in my songwriting,” he says. “It was important for me to learn poetry structure, why stories are written, why characters are enduring. Making sure it sounds as good on the page as it does when you are performing. A song should be poetry as well as song.”
A good example of Flemons’s love of structure comes across in the song “I Can’t Do It Anymore,” off his album Prospect Hill.
“I wanted a good short story,” he says. “So I have a first verse that’s like an introduction, like a splash painting in a comic book. Then the second verse is a funny one. Then the third verse is more intense, with a lot of unrestrained emotion. That all comes from slam poetry—making the form fit.”
Prospect Hill was Flemons’s first album since leaving the Carolina Chocolate Drops to pursue a solo career, and it showcases everything that makes his work great: solid chops in multiple styles, evocative songwriting, and a kaleidoscopic array of influences that allows him to evoke other artists without ever sliding into imitation. But as we talk, he quickly comes back to the present moment—specifically, a new record that is bringing his love of history and his storytelling skills to a slice of the American story rooted in his own family.
Recorded for Smithsonian Folkways, his new album Black Cowboys: From the Trails to the Rails, will focus on the story of black cowboys in the American West.
“When I first read about there being black cowboys, and that there were a bunch of them, I was baffled because I hadn’t heard of that. Then I found in my own family story I had a lot of that history.”
Flemons’s grandfather came to Arizona from East Texas following the Second World War to do sawmill work. He would eventually become a preacher, starting the First Church of God in Christ in Holbrook, Arizona—a town that had little desire for churches.
“It was a rough cowboy town,” says Flemons. “The Bucket of Blood Saloon is where they got the thing of shooting at a guy’s feet to make them dance.”
Many of the black cowboys from the era of Flemons’s grandfather became military men, working with all types of horses. At home, they would often work the rodeos. But when the summer came, and they looked for other work, there was another option—a job that would be instrumental in driving the growth of the black middle-class: Pullman Porters.
“That’s why the title of the album is Black Cowboys: From the Trails to the Rails,” says Flemons. “A lot of those black cowboys became Pullman Porters. It’s a story of the black community moving away from that country culture that came out of slavery. But they were also entrepreneurs.”
For Flemons, it’s an opportunity to present a new take on the story of his country, his state, and his community.
“(It’s) a little bit of Arizona Culture. I didn’t want to get too in depth to it. Because when you get into it, there’s a whole other story of the black rodeo riders and the preachers, but for this album I wanted to give a good introduction to it. I’m one of the few people who knows those stories. I remember seeing cowboy poets in Phoenix and Flagstaff and Prescott. I performed at the Elko National Poetry Gathering, representing the black cowboy songs. Being an artist that’s half black and half Mexican going up and playing…to be someone that’s championing that music and playing it at venues, there’s just a very spiritual element to it.”
Photo: Scott Legato
The story of those cowboys might seem a long way from Washington D.C., but the connection between the overlooked history Flemons is focusing on and the mission of the new National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture is not lost on him. When Flemons performed at the opening of the museum, he stood in the shadow of the Washington Monument, on a stage named after the poet Gil Scott-Heron.
“To finally have a big tangible museum right on the Mall is such a powerful statement,” he says. “It sets a couple of things right.”
And he’s part of the museum, too. A picture of the Carolina Chocolate Drops sits inside, right next to Leadbelly’s guitar. It’s appropriate for Flemons, who was so deeply influenced by Leadbelly’s work—by so much of the work that is now showcased in the museum. You can hear the wave of that history crashing through his songs. If you want to, that is. For someone as deeply committed to researching history as Flemons, he’s never forgotten his early lessons in the power of the live performance.
“I try to have the best of both worlds,” he says. “I’m referencing a lot of influences. And if people want to look into it, they can find all that. But it sounds good the first time, too.”