Sounds Local: Dom Flemons aids movement to reclaim black western culture

  • Dom Flemons will perform songs from his most recent solo project, “Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys,” and share stories when he appears at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Contributed photo

  • Singer-songwriter Seth Glier practices in his Easthampton studio apartment in December 2017. Glier will perform two shows at The Parlor Room on Friday and Saturday. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • HUNTER

For the Recorder
Published: 11/14/2019 10:17:06 AM

Dom Flemons calls himself “The American Songster,” and being that the term first came about in the late 19th century to describe a traveling musician who works in a wide variety of genres, it’s a fitting description of the Washington D.C.-based musician.

Flemons spends a great deal of time on the road performing old-time music from various traditions — everything from old Piedmont blues to country-western. He is also a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, jug, percussion, quills and rhythm bones.

We should also add musical historian to the list. As a co-founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as a solo artist, Flemons has delved into the history of the African-American contribution to American roots music. His most recent solo project, “Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys,” is an extensive exploration of the cultural and musical contributions of black cowboys in the American West.

Flemons will perform songs from this album and share stories when he appears at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, 289 Main St. in Greenfield, on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Flemons’ interest in this most recent project came about when he was on a road trip from North Carolina to his family’s home in Arizona. While visiting a gift shop, Flemons happened to stumble across a book called “The Negro Cowboys,” by Phillip Durham.

“I was blown away by this book because it mentioned that one in every four cowboys (who) helped settle the West during the main period of the cattle drives were African-Americans,” Flemons said. “So that really moved me and opened up my perspective on the black West in general.”

Flemons, who is half African-American and half Mexican-American, grew up in Phoenix and said that he always had the perspective of a multi-cultural West. He started extensively researching the subject and discovered field recordings of black cowboys recorded by John and Alan Lomax.

“There was a musical component that was also very present,” said Flemons, who speaks with great enthusiasm about the subject. “But I found there had not yet been an album that put it all together in one place. So I started to piece together what would become ‘Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys.’”

Flemons worked on the album over the course of two years, exploring the complex history of the West in which black cowboys played an essential role, yet were essentially ignored.

He said he understands that many people’s perception of the West is greatly influenced by Hollywood movies, comic books and dime store novels, which portray cowboys as white. The reality, he said, is quite different.

“It’s an interesting juxtaposition — the real West and the West of the imagination,” he said. “And it’s been an interesting exercise of pulling the curtain back and pulling the curtain forward.”

For instance, Flemons discovered that American classics like “Home on the Range” and “Goodbye, Old Paint,” had deep ties to black cowboys.

“When I first conceived of the album, I was going to write all original numbers about black cowboys, and I did write three songs,” he said. “But I found that bringing some of the really well-known cowboy songs, that also had an association with black cowboys, was a really powerful sentiment and a statement.”

The 18-song album, “Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys,” was released in 2018 on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The album was produced in conjunction with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The disc is accompanied by an extensive 40-page booklet of liner notes written by Flemons and his wife, along with historical photographs.

“Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys” was well received, and even nominated for a 2019 Grammy Award. It also laid an historical foundation for a bigger pop culture moment.

While Flemons’ work is the first of its kind, the notion of black cowboys burst on the mainstream music world most recently when Lil Nas X scored a massive hit with the song “Old Town Road” with its video and lyrics about a black cowboy.

“It was amazing to see a black cowboy song, but to go one step deeper — to see a young southern black man’s voice juxtaposed against the sound of a banjo create an international phenomena is just amazing,” Flemons said of the hit song. “I was blown away by this.”

Flemons’ work was further reinforced by Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentary series on country music as it emphasized the contributions of African-American musicians. It also featured some of the narratives that Flemons has been sharing with audiences for years. Flemons did not appear in the documentary, but he was part of the Bank of America commercial that aired throughout the series, showing various musicians playing the song “Wagon Wheel” on banjo.

“It’s been a beautiful thing to have been able to expand the perception of country and western music with the black cowboys album,” Flemons said, looking back on the impact of the project. “It’s been wonderful to have been part of a movement to reclaim black cowboys and black western culture because I’m excited to see what happens next. Usually with history projects, you have to wait a couple of years to see if they manifest. Because this has manifested so quickly, it proves there was a need. Now I am waiting to see how that need is filled. Who knows what’s next around the bend?”

Tickets to Saturday’s show are $15 and are available at hawksandreed.com. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, call 413-774-0150.

Seth Glier coming to The Parlor Room

Shelburne Falls native Seth Glier will perform two shows at The Parlor Room, 32 Masonic St. in Northampton, on Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. each night. Glier’s latest album is “Birds,” a collection of moving songs that range from the personal to the political.

He will be joined at this show by his backing players, Rachel Coats on upright bass and Kelly Halloran (also a Shelburne Falls native) on fiddle. Glier is currently in Nashville, Tenn., doing some recording, so look for new music from him in January. But you can get a sneak peak of what’s ahead as he’ll be unveiling some new material at these shows.

In other news, Glier and his trio are heading to Mexico and Honduras in March for another cultural diplomacy program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Glier also recently launched a Patreon campaign where fans can provide ongoing financial support in exchange for access to unreleased material, a podcast and more. Learn more at sethglier.com.

“Music is a universal language,” he writes on the campaign. “I know that how we tell a story has the power to change a story. I write songs because I believe they are some of the most powerful forces in navigating our personal lives and our global community.”

Tickets are $20 in advance and are available at signaturesoundspresents.com or by calling the Signature Sounds box office at 413-341-3317. Tickets are $25 at the door.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.




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