As a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dom Flemons spent nine years traveling the world singing, playing and telling the stories behind indigenous American music, the tunes that originated out of soldiers, slaves, hillbillies, hellions and all the other historical contributors to traditional folk music and its many-headed offspring. He plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, jug, fife, bones and quills.
The Chocolate Drops won a Grammy for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, and became one of the top folk-festival attractions in the country.
In 2014, Flemons – who is equal parts studious folklorist, multi-instrumentalist and American griot – left the group for the solo-artist highway. This Saturday, March 2, he performs at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art from 6 to 8 p.m. (buy tickets here). The spotlight, accordingly, will be on the subject of his newest album Black Cowboys – a collection of old-time songs telling the story (also related in Flemons’ extensive liner notes) of African Americans and the Old West. It’s on Smithsonian Folkways Records.
“Several years back, I found a book called The Negro Cowboys,” he tells the Catalyst, “and that talked about how one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African American cowboys, working alongside the Mexican vaqueros and the Anglo cowboys, and that got me started.”
It’s a little-known and greatly misunderstood segment of our country’s history, told through song and narrative, with titles including “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” “Steel Pony Blues,” “Charmin’ Betsy” and “Home on the Range,” which first appeared – sung by a black man – on field recordings by John Lomax in the 1930s.
At the James Museum, Flemons will talk – and sing – about legendary cowboy Nat Love (aka Deadwood Dick), a former slave, and Jules Verne Allen, a rough strong rider and bronco buster who became “The Original Singing Cowboy” and recorded for RCA.
“For me, it’s all about illuminating,” Flemons says. “When you have narratives that have been sidelined, or they’re in the fringes, I always try to think of it as an opportunity to educate people – and to present a narrative that they might not have heard before.”
Flemons insists the “history lesson” aspect of his performances are just part of the package. “As a person who does historically-based music, I always try to make sure that the show is entertaining,” he explains. “I will be presenting Black Cowboys as the middle segment of a bigger picture of the work I’ve been doing. So I’m going to include a lot of old-time string band music, country blues, some early country music as well as ragtime jazz. The Western material is going to be the focal point in the middle.
“It’s not quite as dry as a power point presentation! I’ve really tried to follow the example of people like Pete Seeger, who have used education and storytelling to create very entertaining songs and music.”
As for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons hints that he and co-founder Rhiannon Giddens eventually stopped seeing eye-to-eye on the band and its raison d’etre. Life goes on.
“We had nine good years with the group going on,” he says. “Basically, it was one of those things where other people wanted to run the group, and so I decided to let them. And that’s all I can really say about that.
“I haven’t heard from the group since.”