There are three blues artists cutting through the clutter right now: Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is the child prodigy turned phenom currently on tour and up for several Blues Music Awards in May. Gary Clark Jr. will become the next B.B. King if Sony, the publicists, and the public continue to crown him and he continues to make money for a major label. He was on the most recent CBS Sunday Morning. Then, there’s Dom Flemons. Appearing at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Friday night (January 17), this guy has made academic covers of traditional blues not often heard by the masses cool. Not an easy sell. But he’s getting all the right kind of recognition. A Grammy Award winner, two-time Emmy nominee, 2019 WAMMIE Award Winner. On February 28, Omnivore will issue his third solo release Prospect Hill bundled with his 215 EP plus 12 bonus tracks with new liner notes from Flemons and photography by Music Maker Relief Foundation founder Timothy Duffy.
A press release announcing the package describes it as two albums that “serve as a comprehensive overview of Flemons’ repertoire, which spans more than 100 years and bridges the gaps among blues, country, jazz, bluegrass, folk, and hip-hop beats. Flemons has recorded original songs and instrumental tracks that paint a mosaic of American music ranging from the songsters of the 1920s to the present.
His 2108 appearance at Caffe Lena was a standout show of the year. Here’s what I said about him at the time:
The Lone Ranger may have been inspired by a former slave, and 25% of the cowboys riding the range after the Civil War were black.
Those are just two of the facts unearthed by Dom Flemons when he researched his Smithsonian Folkways album Black Cowboys. Flemons calls himself “the American Songster.” He’s a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning old-timey string ensemble the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that taught the general public that the banjo is an African instrument.
A musician proficient on four-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills, vocals and more. He is the grandson of a man who worked as a preacher and sawmill laborer in the same Arizona town Nat Love called home, and after emigrating from Mexico, his maternal ancestors became civil rights leaders in Arizona.
Half black and half Mexican, Flemons is a historian, music scholar and collector with published articles in the Oxford American, New York Times Magazine, Ecotone, No Depression Magazine and Mother Jones. He’s on the Board of Directors for Folk Alliance International, and his memorabilia is housed in the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. His liner notes for Black Cowboys take up a 40-page album insert. So, when he says the genesis for the Lone Ranger was a black man, I stand up and salute.
“Bass Reeves (the real Lone Ranger) was born into slavery,” Flemons explains. “He also lived with the Cherokee Nation. He was a deputy marshal for Isaac Parker, the hanging judge. The oldest brother in the Dalton Gang clan was another deputy marshal who was assigned by Judge Parker in the same year that Bass Reeves was assigned as a marshal. Then I think he got killed, and the younger brothers sought revenge on the people that killed him, and they became the Dalton Gang, the famous outlaw gang. All of the western culture that we think of as the legendary stories have links with what was going on socially at the time.”
Flemons says his biggest surprise in sourcing Black Cowboys was in finding so many different stories. “It really gave me a better sense of what people did after slavery and the reconstruction era. It really gives you a sense that people really did make it after slavery, and that it wasn’t just slavery right into the civil rights era like people would think from reading their history books.”
As a blues journalist, it’s easy for me to assume that a majority of black music is either blues, soul, R&B or jazz. But listening to Dom Flemons’ album, many of the songs remind me of the kind of traditional folk music I listened to back during the folk scare of the ’60s. The Carolina Chocolate Drops sensitized music fans to the
idea that African American musical history is a lot deeper than the blues of Leadbelly or the jazz of Louis Armstrong, and that the Sons of the Pioneers, who performed in so many western films in the ’30s and ’40s, are not the whole story.
Flemons underlines that realization and helps halt the minimalization in American culture of the contributions made by the ethnic melting pot that makes the United States a great country.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of his research is the documentation of the relationship between blacks and whites at a time when many assume there was nothing but hostility between the races during reconstruction.
“By necessity, there were situations (where you had) equality through the circumstances more so than equality through decision,” explains Flemons. “In spite of the ideological separation between the races, there are many examples of people working together, especially working-class people. There are definite exceptions to the rule even though socially to see people working together in any regard in the open was something that was taboo and not accepted.
“People were working together when they had familiar ties, or they connected to a similar church or general store. Or they had some sort of familiarity. In the south, of course, that was a strong way to get a foot in the door socially, especially churches. They say, ‘What church did you go to?’ They could tell a lot about who you were based on where you went to church, and in the history of the west and the cowboys, we found that ideology of working and togetherness through that work.”
Flemons’ Black Cowboys illustrates how music also has played a role in breaking down prejudice.
Showtime is 8 p.m. with opening act Nora Brown.