- By Alan Richard
Updated: Jan 9, 2020
Dom Flemons’ latest musical journey explores folk music, American history, the West, and the African-American experience
Growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona, musician Dom Flemons’ father, like other local African-American men and women, often listened to the only radio station in town—a country station.
“He was very well versed in country music,” Flemons said of father, Charles Flemons, who worked for a time as a Pullman porter on the railroad. On train routes to western towns such as Winslow and Holbrook, his father actually was living out lyrics such as Charley Pride’s 1970 hit, “(Is Anybody Goin' to) San Antone?”
“That was his life, and he had a very visceral connection to country music in a way that in Phoenix seemed a little odd,” Flemons said. “When he went down to Phoenix, he was wearing Wranglers and bolo ties.”
So, perhaps it’s not a stretch for Dom Flemons, a Grammy Award winner, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, actor, music scholar, historian, and record collector. An expert on the banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion instruments, quills, and rhythm bones, he lives just outside Washington, D.C. with his wife Vania Kinard and their young daughter, Cheyanne Love.
He often uses the moniker “The American Songster,” his repertoire of music covering more than 100 years of early American popular music.
Although Flemons and his immediate family are not black cowboys--they are a part of a larger story of African American pioneers who settled in western towns before the west became modern in the way that we know it.
He was raised in Phoenix by his father, who played basketball at Northern Arizona University, and his Mexican-American mother, Dorina, who once was a Flamenco dancer.
The musician’s ancestors would have been proud to know of their prodigious progeny’s journey learning and teaching others about black Americans in the West, and how he’s put that knowledge—and personal journey—out to the masses.
“There’s a very deep story of the Southwest that’s within my personal history,” Dom Flemons said in an extensive interview with SoulCountry. “Once I started reading about the history of black cowboys and black western people … I realized that my father’s family had a deep connection to the history of westward family migration.”
Dom Flemons' mother, Dorina, center, during her flamenco dancing days. (Photo courtesy of Dom Flemons)
Inside Flemons’ latest album, the fascinating Black Cowboys (Smithsonian Folkways), the Rev. Raymond Flemons is pictured standing with a guitar. Dom Flemons’ grandmother, Mamie Flemons, dons a western-style shirt. There’s a picture of Flemons’ paternal great-grandmother, Honey Duley Flemons, too. This remarkable record earned a nomination for a Grammy Award in 2018 for Best Folk Album and made it to No. 5 on the bluegrass charts (of all things).
Flemons' paternal grandparents had come west to Flagstaff from their home in Pineland, Texas, after his grandfathers service in World War II where he was stationed in Papua, New Guinea. In 1951, his grandfather the Reverend Raymond Flemons started a church in Holbrook, Arizona, but continued to work at the sawmills—like his father had before him, and his grandmother, “First Lady” Mamie Flemons, had come from a small community called Lea’s Ridge, near Cotton Plant, Arkansas.
Discovering the past
In a shop near the Painted Desert in Arizona more than a decade ago, Flemons stumbled upon The Negro Cowboys, a history book from the early 1980s. “I had some hints at black cowboys, but it wasn’t until I saw that book that it really dawned on me that one in four cowboys in the pre-settlement history of the West were African-American,” he said.
Raised on TV’s singing white cowboys such as Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, Flemons carried with him a somewhat false view that most Americans share of a lack of diversity among cowboys and their kind.
Instead, Flemons discovered for himself and now shares with others his interest in black cowboys, their stories and songs, and how their legacy persists in today’s popular music, including soul, blues, country—and even rap and hip-hop.
“I was surprised the black West was infinite in its source material. It’s given me a whole different world to reach into,” Flemons said.
He learned that some African ranchers accompanied Italian explorer Christopher Columbus to the new world, and that St. Augustine, Florida, was home to the first free black settlement in America.
His own Black Cowboys project shows some of the connections between 19th-Century African-American culture with modern times, and also has helped Flemons to reckon with his own Afro-Mexican heritage in ways he hadn’t considered before.
In this exploration of cowboy themes and the West, Flemons found “a lot of stories that kind of diversify the birth of the United States. The idea of blackness was not strictly defined.”
As he explored his own family’s history, Flemons came across the fairly rare album Black Texicans: Balladeers & Songsters, a collection of recordings from the mid-1930s by folklorists John and Alan Lomax released on Rounder Records in 1999.
“Before the end of his life, he saw African-American music and culture developing and moving away from the rural culture.” It became a goal of Lomax’s “to repatriate black culture back into black culture,” especially as black Americans migrated en masse to Los Angeles, Chicago and the Mid-Atlantic cities, Flemons said.
“The young kids were more into James Brown than Sid Hemphill. He felt there was something being lost,” he said.
On his own record, Flemons sings “Home on the Range,” maybe the best-known cowboy song, written by poet Brewster Higley and the melody by his friend Daniel Kelley. But Flemons’ performance is likely different than any you’ve heard, especially those by Gene Autry or Bing Crosby. It’s solemn and poignant and carries along with it much weight and depth of history.
Lomax first heard the song as performed by a black cowboy in a bar in Texas. He made a wax cylinder recording of the singer’s performance, but the cylinder since has turned to dust. “A black cowboy sang (the song) to him in 1910,” Flemons said. “What fueled John Lomax’s research was knowing black cowboys” personally.
“A lot of the strengths that came from these men and women came from the subtlety of being one of the strongest people in the room but never saying so, and my version of 'Home…' is meant to symbolize that restraint and subtlety,” he said.
Flemons listened to early recorded versions of the song from the 1920s by singers Jules Verne Allen and Vernon Dalhart (known for “The Old 97”). Dalhart’s version, a slow blue waltz, was one of the earliest on record, and really drew Flemons’ attention. (See video below.)
“I found a distinctly different melody to ‘Home on the Range’,” in some of those versions, he said, leading him to believe the different melody may have originated with the original performer recorded by Lomax. The tune shows the power of black voices even in times of more severe oppression, through work and art, Flemons said. This classic song is known as the western national anthem and the acknowledgement of its roots in the black west is an empowering story to tell, Flemons said.
“The red man was pressed from this part of the West, he’s likely no more to return,” Flemons sings. “It’s “such a poignant verse, somewhat nostalgic, but at the same time completely unforgiving about what happened,” he said.
Some black cowboys were former slaves who had drifted West for work after emancipation, and many of them lived hardworking lives of freedom on the frontier, where a man’s work ethic sometimes mattered more than his skin color, said Flemons. He quoted cowboy Matthew “Bones” Hooks with saying, “Any man who couldmistreat me on the trail wasn’t man enough to stay on the trail.”
The most captivating moment on Flemons’ album may be “Old Chisholm Trail,” with a remarkable performance by Flemons of a song that seems like it’d be nearly impossible to learn:
It’s bacon and beans most every day
I’d just as sure eat prairie hay
Whoop-die y-little um ya um ee ya, ee ya
My foot in the stirrup and my hand on the horn
I’m the best damn cowboy there ever was born
Whoop-die y-little um ya um ee ya, ee ya
Then, Flemons finishes the song with a literal yodel that makes the melodic scat seem even more ancient. Moses “Clear Rock” Platt sang the for John Lomax in 1934. “When I heard that version, it gave me a very visceral connection to why the black cowboy musical form… touches on parts of African-American music like funk, soul, rapping, R&B, and hip-hop,” Flemons said.
Indeed, there are threads in American roots music that seamlessly connect cowboy folk songs to today’s western black and frontier-related imagery: Flemons notes the popularity of the Yeehaw Agenda, a popular social media campaign emphasizing a more inclusive black western-American culture.
From past to present
Flemons’ musical journey has been fascinating to follow. He decided to pursue music professionally when he was only 18, after seeing folk legend Dave Van Ronk perform in Arizona. “When he told stories… he was able to give context that would allow me to go on my own journey,” he said.
After graduating from Northern Arizona University, he ventured to North Carolina for the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering, where he met tradition-bearers Joe Thompson, Mike Seeger, and Béla Fleck. Shortly afterward, Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson founded the black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The Drops were mentored by fiddler Thompson, then in his 80s, who died in 2012. The group also found inspiration in the 1930s group the Tennessee Chocolate Drops (who recorded the original version of “Knoxville County Stomp,” which Flemons covers on Black Cowboys). Flemons’ group won the Grammy Award for best traditional folk album in 2010 for Genuine Negro Jig, and the group was inducted in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
Although Flemons is no longer a member of the group, deciding to pursue a solo career in 2014, he continues to spread awareness about the rich history of North Carolina Piedmont blues and songsters such as Elizabeth Cotten and James “Boo” Hanks (with whom Flemons recorded an album for the Music Maker Relief Foundation) in his repertoire.
Black Cowboys is Flemons’ most extensive solo project, even with his impressive solo and duet releases. (See his discography and this interview with Flemons in The Washington Post focused on the history of the banjo.)
“Cowboys are such an iconic image, but I wanted it to be something that everybody could get into, so that people in the African-American community as well as folks out west of the Mississippi, I wanted to give them some history,” Flemons said. “A lot of folks, kind of like myself even, there’s not a sense of western history that’s relevant or even tangible” to them.
Dom Flemons in an aged tintype photograph. (Photo by Tim Duffy)
At the 2018 Grammy Awards ceremony, Flemons and Kinard were seated near many prominent rappers, R&B artists and producers, and hip-hop artists, including the great Quincy Jones, Jon Batiste, Questlove of The Roots, and even rocker Post Malone. Flemons had a long conversation—about black cowboys—with producer Tay Keith, a Memphis native who has worked with Beyonce’, Travis Scott, Drake (whose family has Memphis roots) and others.
“Then one week later, a black cowboy hip-hop song comes out,” Flemons said. “It automatically led people to my doorstep.”
Lil Nas X’s massive multi-genre smash “Old Town Road,” now one of the biggest hits in popular music history, wasn’t alone in including the theme in 2019, Flemons noted. There was pop/R&B singer Solange Knowles’ musical references to black cowboys from her hometown of Houston. There also was rapper Megan thee Stallion and the Compton Cowboys (which help kids in tough neighborhoods how to care for horses), James Brown singing “Tennessee Waltz,” the soulful country of 1970s singer Linda Martell and the great singer Charley Pride, and even to country-pop and roots-rock performer Darius Rucker, Flemons and Kinard pointed out.
The “Old Town Road” phenomenon in part may have arrived in part because of the convergence of sounds and styles that some Americans now find unfamiliar, Flemons said. “No one’s talked about… the incorporation of an untrained Southern black male voice next to the sound of the banjo,” he said. “It struck a nerve with people just to hear those two things juxtaposed.”
Kinard recalled that Flemons was flying home from an event with Quincy Jones when someone from the Al Jazeera TV network called and asked to interview Flemons, as “Old Town Road” had just hit No. 1 on the country charts (before being removed on a technicality, perhaps, stirring controversy and making the song even more popular).
The Al Jazeera report with Flemons had about 10 million views, she said. In the interview, Flemons said he tried “to steer conversation away from racism” toward the “much bigger idea that with such an elaborate history of African-American musicians over the full course of country music history,” whether Ray Charles, Charley Pride, or old-time string bands that have had such an influence on Flemons’ work and music.
Flemons also has made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville’s American Currents Class of 2018 exhibit on present-day artists. His black cowboy memorabilia and album is featured in the Hall alongside Tex Ritter, who Flemons calls a scholar and a cowboy, and other artifacts from country superstars, such as Reba McEntire, Jeannie Seely, Chris Stapleton, John Prine and more. Rolling Stone Country also featured Flemons’ cowboy record around the same time.
“Black Cowboys has been able to elevate itself into country and western music in a way that I wasn’t necessarily shooting for,” Flemons said.
One of the few living artists who has recorded for Smithsonian Folkways’ Legacy Series, Flemons performed on the Gil Scott-Heron stage near the Washington Monument during the 2016 opening celebration of the Smithsonian’s incredible National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
This year, Flemons’ even was chosen as a “Spotlight Artist” at the Soundtrack of America event at The Shed in New York City, curated by Quincy Jones and Emmy Award-winning director Steve McQueen.
Flemons also was featured prominently at the conclusion of the Bank of America commercial that airs with Ken Burns Country Music documentary that airs regularly on PBS. (See video below.)
“I’m placed in a position that I’m proud to be a part of, which is showing a more diverse world in country-western and Americana,” Flemons continued. “Marketing is the reason this music is marginalized in one way or another (in the first place). You can also have other people (of various backgrounds) doing it, because they always have.”
Cowboy poetry and the blues
Flemons has tapped into western and cowboy culture himself by becoming an unlikely regular at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering each winter in remote Elko, Nevada.
“All of these cowboys gave me as many stories as they had on historical black cowboys or cowboys they knew,” he said.
At the gathering, he first heard cowboy poet Andy Hedges perform “’Ol’ Proc,” a spoken-word poem that Flemons recites on his own record. The moving poem was written by cowboy poet Wallace McCray, who helped start the annual gathering in Elko.
“I was so blown away by it,” Flemons recalled. Then he contacted McCray, who told Flemons the poem was semi-autobiographical, about his meeting a black cowboy named Joe Proctor:
“I couldn’t wait to meet Mr. Proc Whose peers all praised his ways with stock. But when his calloused hand gripped mine, surprise hit me in waves. Those old cowboys who cut no slack Deemed it unimportant Proc was black, And wasn’t worth a mention that Joe Proctor’s folks were slaves.”
The folks at Elko also introduced Flemons to Pardner [sic] of the Wind, the autobiography of Jack Thorp, who also published the very first cowboy songster (or songbook) that included black singers two years before Lomax made his black cowboy recordings in Texas.
“The first chapter of the book is called ‘Banjo ‘Round the Cow Camp’,” Flemons said. Thorp traveled from upstate New York to New Mexico to become a cowboy, and when he approached one camp, “he sees a bunch of (black) cowboys sitting around the campfire playing the banjo,” Flemons said.
Thorp’s experience led him to write “Little Joe the Wrangler,” which Flemons performs on Black Cowboys. “No cowboy knew more than two verses to any song that they sang,” Flemons said, as songs were handed down and around on the range.
“It had a blues quality that reflected the loneliness on the range,” Flemons said of the song’s appeal to him. “It reminded me of how people described (first) hearing the blues… the flavor and aesthetic quality,” he said. “That (also) informed the way I did ‘Goodbye ‘Ol Paint’.”
Flemons wrote “Steel Pony Blues” about Nat Love “Deadwood Dick,” who originally hailed from Tennessee, worked on a ranch in Arizona, and then became a Pullman porter, writing of his life and career in an autobiography. In one verse, Flemons sings about being called “Mister,” which he’s heard all his life, but for Pullman porters starting in the late 1800s, the courtesy title represented an upgrade in society. (The use of "Mister" solely, without including someone's name, now is considered derogatory when referring to current sleeping-car attendants or other train officers.)
Flemons’ own father had been an apprentice Pullman porter. “He’d never told me this before,” the singer said. He traveled into Mexico and worked on a local chair car that connected trains from Flagstaff to northern New Mexico, before working later as a skycap for Southwest Airlines.
He remembers his father singing along to favorite country tunes such as “I Got the Hungries for Your Love and I’m Waiting in the Welfare Line” by Californian Buck Owens.
“He had a copy of Charlie Daniels’ Super Hits,” Flemons added.
In a strange, country twist of fate, Flemons would play the Grand Ole Opry with Daniels. Later, Flemons’ father, who now drives a limousine, would actually deliver Daniels to a show at a casino outside of Phoenix. He’s provided rides for Charley Pride, the Oak Ridge Boys and Riders in the Sky, as well. Both Flemons men have photos with Charlie Daniels.
Part of black cowboys’ importance was in their mere existence, Flemons argues in his album’s liner notes. The Pullman porters did the same, representing a step toward more professional and respected jobs for African Americans. “There is a progress by your just standing there and just being a part of it,” he said.
A surprising number later became Pullman porters on the first train lines, before Jim Crow would send human rights tumbling backward; Flemons said that through this project he learned his own father had worked for a time as a Pullman porter.
Western women and their cowboys
The Black Cowboys album opens with “Black Woman,” a stirring acapella tune first recorded for the Library of Congress by John Lomax (Alan Lomax’s father) when sung beautifully by Vera Hall of Alabama, as Flemons’ tribute to the unsung women of the West.
In the record’s liner notes, Flemons features a tintype photograph of his wife, Vania Kinard, whose own family story includes black cowboys and pioneer women who migrated from Louisiana and Texas to California.
Kinard, who works with her husband on his music career, quotes the book Black Women of the Old West, in which William Loren Katz writes: “It has been argued that since African-American women were a tiny minority within a western minority, omitting them (from popular culture, including books, music, and film) was hardly an act of discrimination. Although few in number, they earned an honored niche in the saga of the wilderness. As the nation grapples with the history of its multi-cultural past, the story of the frontier African American women deserves a telling.”
These remarkable women included Bridget “Biddy” Mason, “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Sojourner Truth, and many other legendary trailblazers, Flemons and Kinard said. (Check out this episode of Flemons' American Songster Radio podcast series for WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio: https://www.wunc.org/post/black-women-west-american-songster-radio-season-2-episode-1.)
Flemons' medley of the blues and bluegrass standard with the traditional Mexican-cowboy tune, “John Henry y los vaqueros,” combines the traditional folk favorite about the Steel Driving Man with a musical tribute to the original Mexican cowboys who white and black cowhands soon would work alongside. The song features Flemons on the cow “rhythm bones.” Flemons received his first pair of bones from a woman at the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, back in 2006. Since Flemons had played percussion instruments in the band since he was in high school, adapting to the rhythm bones was a natural fit.
The album helps show what Flemons sees as hip-hop culture already being present in the black cowboy story. He wants to try to spark cultural memory—recalling that his own uncle worked on a ranch. “I’ve got black cowboys in my family!” he said.
“These kids that are in Compton,” or Wyoming, or Arizona like him, or Denver, that “they can have a history” of being black in the West, he said. “So much African-American history is based on the East Coast and the Deep South … but black western culture has its own unique place.”
Flemons also includes two songs by Henry Thomas, a bluesman and songster born in east Texas who’s one of the most interesting roots-music figures of them all. Recording in the 1920s, Thomas accompanied himself on panflutes, or “quills,” as he called them--one of the most direct connections between African roots and the blues ever recorded.
Known best for his “Bull Doze Blues,” as included in Canned Heat’s 1960s hit “Going Up the Country” Flemons shows how Thomas’ music connected with others in the West. Flemons himself plays the quills (panflutes) on Thomas’ upbeat and mandolin-laden “Texas Easy Street” and “Charmin’ Betsy.” (See photo of Flemons playing guitar and quills below.)
Flemons also covers “Po Howard” and the freedom song “Gwine to Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In” by Louisiana-born songster and bluesman Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter)—and in his latter days was close friends with Josh White, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. “Lead Belly sang cowboy songs!” Flemons said.
“I wanted to bring in the Texas songsters and others” as part of the story of how folk music started in the South and migrated to the West, he continued. “My version of ‘Po’ Howard’ is sort of a combination of Lead Belly’s spirit with some of the banjo that Pete Seeger would put in it.”
A Flemons original, “One Dollar Bill,” celebrates the legacy of Bill Pickett, “the Bull-Dogger,” the early black rodeo rider featured in a 1923 feature film. Recorded in one take, it was among a handful of tracks recorded in rural Water Valley, Mississippi, near Oxford, with eclectic musician Jimbo Mathus (known for his ragtime-jazz group, the Squirrel Nut Zippers) and modern bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart of the South Memphis String Band.
“They brought a blues quality to it that was beautiful,” Flemons said.
Back in Washington, D.C., Smithsonian co-producer Daniel Sheehy and Flemons liked the Mississippi recordings, but also wanted to emphasize the more plaintive sounds of the black cowboy. “A lot of them didn’t sing in groups,” Flemons said. “I cut the rest of the album (with Sheehy) and then we ended up using most of that.”
On “The March of Red River Valley,” Flemons performs a fife-and-drum version of the cowboy classic. Flemons said for him it brings to mind the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American units of the U.S. Army that manned western outposts in Kansas and beyond just after the Civil War. “I started out as a drummer,” Flemons said.
A Flemons original, “He’s a Lone Ranger,” is about Bass Reeves, the original Okie from Muscogee as Flemons called him. Born a slave, and after living among the Cherokee, Reeves became the first black federal law officer, perhaps, serving as a U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River, he’s the subject of Flemons’ ragtime romp.
“Knox County Stomp,” originally recorded in 1929 by Howard Armstrong and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops—a major influence on Flemons and the modern-day Chocolate Drops—is an instrumental that blurs the lines between hillbilly square-dance tunes and the blues, and In his version, Flemons adds the traditional instrument the guitarron’, from the Mexican string-band tradition.
The same is accomplished through Flemons’ Black Cowboys version of “Lonesome Old River Blues,” originally recorded by Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff, who was accompanied by the Opry’s first (and for decades, its only) black star, harmonica player DeFord Bailey. Flemons describes his version as more subdued than Acuff’s, weaving all of America’s complexities into the song’s treatment.
After all, it’s “music marketers led music and our understanding of it away from the multicultural milleau that it was,” Flemons said.
One of the best songs on Flemons’ album--with yet another fascinating story behind it--is “Goodbye Old Paint,” written by Jess Morris, a white man whose father owned an enormous ranch in Texas where many black cowboys worked who learned jaw harp and fiddle from black cowboys. Believed to have been written by black cowboy Charley Willis, its wistful lines include:
“Farewell fair ladies, I’m leaving Cheyenne
Farewell fair ladies, I’m leaving Cheyenne…
Good bye my little dawnie, my pony won’t stand…
Old Paint’s an old pony and she paces when she can…”--
Flemons’ pleading version, influenced by cowboy singer Don Edwards, touches on bluegrass. “I treated it like Bill Monroe might have treated it,” or “Brownie McGhee, Dave van Ronk,” Flemons said.
Flemons’ explorations of the crossroads of black cowboy music with old-time country and blues raises questions about how Flemons interprets these songs for diverse audiences—or often, white listeners. “The music in of itself I always feel like it needs to be blameless.”
“We have an opportunity to take that back and be able to repatriate the music and the culture and the history,” Flemons said. “I won the fight over ignorance in that way. That’s part of what the black cowboys did. (They) had to deal with people on a one-to-one human level. That’s where prejudice and racism (are eliminated).”
“Adding the western material into my repertoire, it really has brought me full circle, and it has completed an aspect of my musical repertoire that I felt was missing,” he added. “For me, this is about bringing people together.”
MORE ON DOM FLEMONS:
Videos of all songs from Black Cowboys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfVf0sbnm5s&list=OLAK5uy_mzrIGiU6AgpM507k-gbO4Jb0F9pCHX_gM
Flemons' American Songster Radio Podcast on WUNC Public Radio: https://www.wunc.org/topic/american-songster-radio-podcast
Flemons' website: https://theamericansongster.com/
Full Black Cowboys liner notes: https://folkways-media.si.edu/liner_notes/smithsonian_folkways/SFW40224.p