Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and musical historian Dom Flemons is the next featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series a little early with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest last week with a celebration of Rhiannon Giddens. This week we’ll look at “The American Songster,” a name Flemons has earned with a repertoire that covers over 100 years of American folklore, ballads, and tunes.
Along with Giddens and fiddle player Justin Robinson, Flemons was one of the co-founders of the influential African American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing with the group from 2005 until 2014 when he left to begin a solo career. He has performed at a wide variety of venues with a range of collaborators, including English folk legend Martin Simpson and Old Crow Medicine Show. (He has a cameo in the latter’s hilarious official video for their song Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer.)
In 2018, Smithsonian Folkways released the album Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys. This project “sheds a light on the music, culture, and the complex history of the golden era of the Wild West” while celebrating “the thousands of African American pioneers that helped build the United States of America.”
He’s a Lone Ranger is from that album and tells the story about Bass Reeves, the first African American U.S. Marshall west of the Mississippi.
I was fortunate to hear Flemons with the Chocolate Drops in 2009 at Merlefest, and then caught him again in 2016 at the Red Wing Folk Music Festival. He is a consummate performer, bringing high energy and deep historical context to his music. You can see that in his live performance of Hot Chicken from the New York Guitar Festival. Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad is a song heard in many traditions. Flemons plays it here from his Black Cowboys album.
And those who want to learn how to play “the bones” need look no further than Flemons short video where he demonstrates his style by using the tune Cindy Gal in How to Play The Bones.
For those in the Washington, D.C. region, Dom Flemons plays the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville, Virginia, on Friday, February 21st.
More to come…