Singing his own song

Dom Fle­mons’ jour­ney to Black Cow­boys

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

Dom Fle­mons, known as the Amer­i­can Song­ster, plays old-time mu­sic from many tra­di­tions on a va­ri­ety of in­stru­ments in­clud­ing banjo, bones, jug, and har­mon­ica. He per­forms songs from his fourth al­bum, Black Cow­boys (Smith­so­nian Folk­ways Record­ings), at Gig Per­for­mance Space on Sun­day, Sept. 16. In telling the story of how he came to record Black Cow­boys, Fle­mons hap­pily took the scenic route.

His grand­fa­ther fol­lowed sawmill work from Texas to Flagstaff, Ari­zona. He was also a preacher with the Church of God and Christ, and in the early 1950s he es­tab­lished a church in Hol­brook, Ari­zona. Fle­mons, who was a found­ing mem­ber of the Carolina Choco­late Drops and now has a solo mu­sic ca­reer, grew up in Phoenix. “My eth­nic­ity is half-black and half-Mex­i­can. I’m a fifth-gen­er­a­tion Phoenix na­tive on my mom’s side,” he said.

His mother, who comes from a cop­per-min­ing fam­ily, was a fla­menco dancer who played the cas­tanets — which he con­sid­ers sim­i­lar to play­ing the bones, a per­cus­sive folk in­stru­ment made from the ribs or leg bones of a cow. His only for­mal mu­sic train­ing was as a drum­mer in his school’s march­ing band; he is oth­er­wise self-taught. His fa­ther was a fan of cow­boy mu­sic, so as a kid Fle­mons lis­tened to peo­ple like Marty Rob­bins, Wil­lie Nel­son, and the singing cow­boys of Riders in the Sky. “That’s one part of it. Of course, be­ing African Amer­i­can and grow­ing up in the South­west, [black cow­boys] were some­thing I knew were a fact. But it’s a two-part story, and the sec­ond half comes from when I was driv­ing back out west from North Carolina, where I was liv­ing at the time.”

He hap­pened to stop in the gift shop at Pet­ri­fied For­est Na­tional Park, in north­east­ern Ari­zona, about 50 miles from the New Mex­ico border. He picked up a book from 1983 called

The Ne­gro Cow­boys, writ­ten by Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones. “The book talked about how one in four cow­boys in the West was black. I thought that was a very il­lu­mi­nat­ing state­ment, and from that point on I just started keep­ing tabs on sto­ries about black cow­boys. I was sur­prised to find a ridicu­lously huge quan­tity of sto­ries about AfricanAmer­i­can peo­ple of the West, and how that con­nected to the his­tory that de­vel­oped af­ter eman­ci­pa­tion and dur­ing the Re­con­struc­tion era.”

Fle­mons is now versed in the his­tory of black cow­boy mu­sic — which, as it turns out, is the his­tory of cow­boy mu­sic. He spoke of song col­lec­tors John Avery Lo­max and N. Howard “Jack” Thorp, both of whom doc­u­mented and recorded folk mu­sic in the early 20th cen­tury. In Lo­max’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Ad­ven­tures of a Bal­lad Hunter (1947), Fle­mons read about his record­ing of the well-known cow­boy song “Home on the Range” on a wax cylin­der for the Li­brary of Congress. The singer was a black cook. “From that record­ing, Lo­max tran­scribed the melody that the cook sang, and that be­came the West­ern na­tional an­them,” Fle­mons said. In Thorp’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,

Pard­ner of the Wind (1977), Fle­mons learned that black cow­boys were Thorp’s mo­ti­va­tion for record­ing cow­boy mu­sic in the first place. “He talks about the mo­ment when he re­al­ized he needed to doc­u­ment cow­boy songs — which was out in New Mex­ico. There were a bunch of black cow­boys sit­ting around a camp­fire, play­ing banjo and singing a song about one of their horses. Thorp says very specif­i­cally that the songs they were singing were dif­fer­ent from any oth­ers he’d heard.”

When Fle­mons re­al­ized that, de­spite their last­ing in­flu­ence on the genre, there was no com­pre­hen­sive al­bum that col­lected songs of black cow­boys, he fixed the prob­lem. “I de­cided to link up with Smith­so­nian Folk­ways and be­come a part of the African Amer­i­can Legacy Se­ries, which is Smith­so­nian Folk­ways’ part­ner­ship with the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture. I knew that they didn’t have a black cow­boy sec­tion in the mu­seum, so I wanted to rem­edy that by hav­ing a tes­ta­ment to this amaz­ing his­tory.”

Fle­mons em­pha­sized that though the his­tory of the mu­sic is im­por­tant to him, his main agenda is for peo­ple to en­joy them­selves. “The his­tory is meant to el­e­vate the joy peo­ple find in the mu­sic — but the mu­sic is meant to get peo­ple mov­ing and put a smile on their face.” His own joy is ev­i­dent when he plays; there is al­most a gid­di­ness to his stage pres­ence. “I took on the moniker of the Amer­i­can Song­ster be­cause my in­ter­est in mu­sic has al­ways been quite var­ied. I’ve al­ways found that there were through-lines be­tween things like blues and rag­time, coun­try mu­sic, folk mu­sic, and early jazz. I’ve al­ways tried to freely mix all of those things to­gether in my mu­sic.”

Among the styles he calls upon on Black Cow­boys is yo­del­ing, a skill he said he keeps in his back pocket. “I’ve al­ways en­joyed the melo­di­ous sound of a good yodel, es­pe­cially from Jim­mie Rogers and Hank Wil­liams — and even some of the record­ings of groups like the Mis­sis­sippi Sheiks, who were a black string band from the ’20s.” Though the al­bum is not yo­deldriven, there are three types of yo­del­ing for which to lis­ten. On the first track, “Black Woman,” he uses a blues yo­del­ing style that feels akin to high-lone­some blue­grass singing. On his ver­sion of “Home on the Range,” he yo­dels in the tra­di­tional style of Jim­mie Rodgers. “On the very last track, ‘Old Chisholm Trail,’ I do kind of a rough yodel in the style of the per­former I first heard record the song for John Lo­max — ‘Clear Rock’ Platt,” he said. “He has a rough R&B sound with his voice that I tried to repli­cate.”

As for how cow­boys and their mu­sic may have be­come dis­as­so­ci­ated from black men in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, Fle­mons said it was the in­flu­ence of dime-store novels about West­ern fron­tier life that pro­lif­er­ated in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury — as well as the ubiq­uity of stereo­types cre­ated and per­pet­u­ated by Wil­liam “Buf­falo Bill” Cody and his Wild West show. Dime-store novels ro­man­ti­cized cow­boy life in a way that made the vi­o­lence and bru­tal­ity of the Amer­i­can fron­tier seem al­most glam­orous, but they some­times in­cluded black char­ac­ters. Cody’s show, how­ever, po­si­tioned the fa­mous scout and bi­son hunter as a hero and “cre­ated sort of a white-sav­ior type of im­age for cow­boys af­ter that.” Cody’s show, which toured the United States and Europe, was born out of vaudeville. It did not dif­fer sub­stan­tially in con­cept, Fle­mons said, from black­face minstrel shows.

“They just changed the char­ac­ters into cow­boys and In­di­ans.”

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