FEATURE: Dom Flemons at Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance
By Brian Turk
Dom Flemons has always been into history, studying, and connecting the dots. He has also always loved music. Those traits are the developmental cornerstones of a man who calls himself The American Songster, which is a moniker that fits well. Flemons is not just a musician-he is a historian, musicologist, sociologist, archivist, teacher, researcher, and bearer of many fading traditions. Best known for his groundbreaking work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons has continued blazing a solo path as The American Songster and he is leaving a legacy with each step he takes.
Flemons and the Carolina Chocolate Drops spent 9 years playing to the world as the most renowned black string band. Essentially, they were the world's only black string band, and they were bringing a tradition to the stage that most people had never witnessed. They told stories, shared the history of the instruments, added the cultural context needed to fully understand the songs, then played and sang their way into people's hearts. People came for a performance but left with a deeply moving experience. The format that Flemons insisted on for the Carolina Chocolate Drops is what made them so unique and what captivated people. He continues with that same deep-rooted approach; telling stories, educating people, and preserving the history of the music to which he has dedicated his life.
Flemons grew up in Arizona, where his mother played a lot of Motown, Cuban music, soul, and jazz. While his father also loved James Brown, he had an affinity for country music; Hank Williams and Buck Owens made appearances on the turntable. Once Flemons started forming his own musical habits, he turned to early rock and roll like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. He then followed the path forward to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, before retracing their origins via the music of the 1920s and 1930s. Once Flemons got to college, he dove into field recordings made by the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s. That is where Flemons started falling in love with the stories and the instruments that shaped the tradition he continues today.
NC Music Magazine recently had the pleasure of speaking with Flemons about his role as The American Songster during which he shed some light on two of the many instruments he plays. One of those instruments is the banjo, which has roots much deeper than the Appalachians. “The banjo is a conglomeration of a bunch of different African instruments”, shared Flemons. “It traveled from Africa to the middle passage, into slavery here in the United States. It was an instrument that was a quintessential part of slave culture.” The banjo eventually found its way into American popular music via blackface minstrel shows. According to Flemons, “The banjo then went on a trajectory to become an internationally known phenomenon.”
Flemons’ interest in the blackness of the banjo led him to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. That event was a turning point for Flemons in many ways. “That banjo workshop gave me the notion that I could do this as a profession”, explained Flemons. “Before then, I just enjoyed the music and studying it.” The thought of translating his passion into a profession did not stem from the desire to perform, but the need for someone to spearhead the preservation of traditional black string music. “Once I went to the gathering and saw that black string band music was underrepresented and it needed to be placed in the history books, I looked at everything differently. I have a degree in ancient literature and am versed in English and critical writing. Combined with my love of the documentation and scholarship of folk music, I knew it was very important to get this story written down in some sort of manner.” Flemons also met his future bandmates at this gathering.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops were the initial route to Flemons’ goal of preserving traditions. Their performances not only spread the traditions, they became a tradition in and of themselves. Flemons documented the music the Carolina Chocolate Drops made during his time with them and spent equal time documenting the history of traditional black music in America. Both the music he helped create and the history he is helping to tell are now housed in The Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. “The formative years of Carolina Chocolate Drops are documented fully and, with that, I documented a large portion of the history of this black banjo playing lineage. Before this archive, there really wasn’t much put together on this history. Now there is a precedent.”
While early jazz, old-time, swing, and bluegrass took the banjo into the limelight, there were players keeping the African American tradition of banjo playing alive. Flemons has had the honor of learning from one of those players; Joe Thompson from Mebane, NC. “He was someone carrying on that black banjo tradition and it had been passed down through his family”, said Flemons. “I was able to come as someone from the outside and learn his music and become a tradition bearer of that music as well. Thompson’s banjo lineage reaches back many generations.”
Like songsters of the past, Flemons’ role as The American Songster is much more than being a musician. Historically, songsters were walking encyclopedias of music and relied on many styles and ways of presenting their stories to entertain and preserve cultural history in the process. “Songsters are the earlier part of blues music”, explained Flemons. “They are like a human jukebox. They perform a variety of material including early jazz, ragtime, blues, folk songs, etc. Hopefully, someone after me will be able to take on this moniker as well.”
Most recently, Flemons released a black cowboy album with Smithsonian Folkways and next month he will be teaching a group of folk musicians how to hone their craft in his internship program at The American Museum of Natural History. It is hard to deny just how deeply Flemons has embedded himself in the fabric of American music; through his playing, through his archiving and research, through his teaching, but mostly, through tradition.
Another tradition passed down to Flemons was the rhythm bones. “The rhythm bones are an instrument that go back to ancient times”, shared Flemons. “They appeared on hieroglyphs in Egypt. The bones have been a part of cultures all over the world. The Americanized version became popular during the black-faced minstrel era and continued on into white and black musical culture.”
Flemons will be at The Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance playing his role as The American Songster and passing down the tradition of the rhythm bones. If there is any one person not to be missed at Shakori, it’s Dom Flemons. He personifies the reasons a festival like Shakori is held and he has a wealth of knowledge not many others hold. If you are a lover of grassroots, tradition, music and dance, then Flemons will school you in all areas.
Dom Flemons will be performing Saturday at 4pm in Carson’s Grove and his Rhythm Bones Jam and Workshop is being held Sunday at 2:30pm on the front porch stage.