Singing his own song
Dom Flemons’ journey to Black Cowboys
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.”