Notes On History

Notes On History

Dom Flemons expands on musical narrative


If an existed for American folk music, Dom Flemons would be its founder and most prolific contributor. When he started listening to the rock and blues and country of the 1960s, he says he “fell into this rabbit hole of music.” But he also started building a rabbit warren of nooks and crannies and corners, intersections where the early 20th century music of Huddie William Ledbetter — better known as Lead Belly — intertwines with that of his contemporaries like Blind Lemon Jefferson and then snakes forward to become part of the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and even Nirvana.

“I’ve always been interested in multiple angles of looking at a musician, trying to get a true three-dimensional picture,” he says. “It’s my own obsessiveness. I have to try to find out as much as I can.”

That led Flemons to a repertoire spanning 100 years of American music, performed on the banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, quills and rhythm bones. And when he plays July 7 as part of the Forest Concert Series at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, he’ll also bring a marching bass drum to play percussion while his longtime friend Clarke Buehling of Fayetteville plays banjo.

And of course, he’ll tell stories. Because talking about music, the history of music, those threads of how music ties the past and the present together, clearly makes him nearly as happy as playing it.

A phone conversation with Flemons begins with an attempt to define his music, which is usually called “traditional folk.” That’s at least partially accurate, he says.

Courtesy Photo
Dom Flemons, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, recently released an album titled “Black Cowboys.” It looks, he says, at a unique time when “the country was changing, and the movement out west was extremely multiethnic and multifaceted.”

As “The American Songster,” a label he chose for himself, “I do try to keep all my music very rooted in tradition,” he says. He wants the music to authentically represent the culture it came from. “But I also try to craft all of my material to suit my needs, when it comes to arranging the songs and putting them together,” he adds. “I would say I’ve taken some liberties, but they’re all based in the musical archaeology I’ve done.”

History was, in fact, Flemons’ first passion. And folk music gave voice to those people and context to those times. Being African-American wasn’t really a big part of that equation, he says, until he attended the Black Banjo Gathering. The annual symposium brings together scholars and musicians, among them Buehling, whom Flemons met that year.

“That was the first time I really became aware that the banjo had roots in the African culture in terms of the memories of enslaved people coming to the U.S. from Africa and the Caribbean,” he says. Blues was about “direct confrontation with adversity,” he says, while folk songs were more surreptitious “when there wasn’t a space for direct confrontation.”

Most recently, Flemons looked at the music of the westward expansion on a new Smithsonian Folkways album, “Black Cowboys,” exploring the often prominent role that African-American pioneers played “between Emancipation and the Civil Rights era.” His music, he says, lets people investigate the past “in a safe space.”

“I don’t like to try to tear down one narrative to tell another,” he says. “Instead, I want to grab the narrative that’s there and expand on it, create the additional narratives that give people a full picture of the tapestry around us.”



Forest Concert Series:

Dom Flemons

WHEN — 8:30 p.m. July 7

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville

COST — $10

INFO — 657-2335

BONUS — Ashlyn Barbaree + Ayleen O’Hanlon + Friends open the show at 7 p.m.

Categories: Cover Story