A FEW MINUTES WITH… Dom Flemons
By Don Wilcock
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, who plays Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Thursday night (August 30), 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, Flemons has become the latest success story in a cultural awakening to the contributions of minorities to the popular diaspora with tipping points from the success of movies like “The Black Panther” and just these last two weeks, “Crazy Rich Asians.” Black Cowboys spent seven consecutive weeks on Billboard Bluegrass chart, charted up to No. 2 on the Folk radio chart, and has garnered other spotlights in Wide Open Country, Cowboys & Indians Magazine, Washington City Paper, American Blues Scene and American Songwriter.
Flemons has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry three times since May when he was the only solo performer on a night that celebrated Carrie Underwood as a 10-year Opry member and also showcased Old Crow Medicine Show and Riders in the Sky. 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 an 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.