Dom Flemons’ new album Black Cowboys is, in some ways, a lifetime in the making. First inspired by his family’s roots in the region, Flemons, known for both his solo work and as a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, chronicles the rich, deep history of Black music in the American west, a history that has often been ignored or white-washed despite its massive contribution to the canon of American music.
Songs on the album include beloved standards like “Home On The Range” and “Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad,” as well as original songs like “One Dollar Bill” and “He’s A Lone Ranger.” The accompanying booklet features extensive liner notes, historical photographs, and a portrait of Flemons by artist William Matthews. Flemons is releasing the project via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ African American Legacy Series.
Stream Black Cowboys ahead of its March 23 release date and read a Q&A with Flemons below.
How did this project first come to life for you? Why did you feel it needed to be done?
I first began developing the album in 2015 shortly after releasing my album Prospect Hill. The idea to make an album about Black cowboys came about when I was driving from North Carolina to my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona to visit family close to 10 years ago. I traveled via I-40 making my way through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico before arriving in northern Arizona. Stopping off at the Petrified Forest in northern Arizona, I went looking around the gift shop and noticed a book called The Negro Cowboys by Phillip Durham. Being a native of Arizona, the idea of African-American cowboys was of interest to me, being of African, Hispanic and Native American descent. My father’s parents came out from East Texas and Arkansas following the sawmill work in northern Arizona. My grandfather, Rev. Raymond Flemons, served in WWII and became a preacher for the Church of God in Christ ministering in churches in Flagstaff, Williams, Holbrook and McNary, which is now the Navajo Reservation.
Many times, when the Great Migration of African American people is discussed in American history, the movement is usually described as a movement from the Deep South to the Midwestern urban centers of the North. Rarely is the story mentioned of the Western Migration from the Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana or Texarkana region, moving West to every settlement from there to Los Angeles and Oakland. Knowing that this history, which was a unique piece of American history, was underrepresented, I decided to make an album around the idea.
I came to the realization that an album needed to be made when I came across a copy of the CD Deep River of Song: Black Texicans. The album is a compilation of field recordings, made by pioneer folklorists John and Alan Lomax, of Black cowboys and their influence on Western musical culture. It turns out that African American songsters who worked on the range greatly influenced John Lomax’s groundbreaking folkloric research on Cowboy Songs. Songs such as “Home On The Range” and “Goodbye Old Paint” were associated with and influenced by Black cowboys and there were written testaments that proved that this was so. Of course, being a big fan of cowboy music in general I was surprised to find so much information on Black cowboys even though the image of the cowboy in popular culture made him usually a white man. As I delved deeper into the subject, it dawned on me that there had never been a single comprehensive album on Black cowboys. So in my mind I wanted to create something that would be a mix between Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs album and a classic Library of Congress field recording, with the complex and uplifting story of the Black cowboy as the main backdrop.
With the knowledge I already had of my own personal history of my mother’s family as a third generation Mexican-American family and my father’s family as an African American family who migrated out West, I had a strong impression that it would be a story that would resonate with many people, not only African Americans who love the culture of the West, but also the ones who still live in the West who might know similar stories.
How did you choose the songs that ended up on the album? Are there one or two that are particularly meaningful to you?
I chose songs for the album based on a few criteria. I picked several standard songs form the cowboy repertoire that would showcase what makes cowboy music great (“Little Joe The Wrangler,” “Tyin’ Knots In The Devil’s Tail,” “The March Of Red River Valley”). A few of the standards have stories associated with Black cowboys and I included those whose original recordings are housed in the Library of Congress (“Home On The Range,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” “Old Chisholm Trail”). The Texas songster tradition that has roots in the older cowboy songs were important for this album and I included them here. The songsters Lead Belly, Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, and Lightnin’ Hopkins all have associations with cowboys but have never been placed in the context of cowboy music (“Black Woman,” “Texas Easy Street,” “Charmin’ Betsy,” “Po’ Howard/Gwine Dig A Hole To Put The Devil In”). String band music and Country & Western music are a strong part of Western culture and I featured several songs that would showcase a variety of sounds that would fit in the cow camps on the range, giving them a slight Tex-Mex feel (“Going Down The Road Feelin’ Bad,” “Knox County Stomp”, “John Henry Y Los Vaqueros”). Finally, I wrote several songs that would fill in the parts of the story where I could not find songs. These songs demonstrated the story of the Black cowboys becoming Pullman Porters, the metamorphosis of the “folk” cowboy into the “Hollywood” cowboy, and to tell the story of the dynamic Western lawman Bass Reeves, who is the inspiration for the fictional character, The Lone Ranger (“One Dollar Bill,” “Steel Pony Blues,” “He’s A Lone Ranger”). A favorite track for me is the poem “Ol’ Proc,” written by contemporary Cowboy Poet Wallace McRae, who based the story on his childhood meeting of the cowboy Joe Proctor and being shocked to learn he was Black. The poem demonstrates one of the way that Black cowboys were respected in the community by being judged by work ethic and not race.
It was important for me to create an album that would appeal to listeners familiar with classic cowboy music as well as newcomers who have never heard this engaging piece of Americana. The impact of reading some of the stories in the liner notes to the album will give one an impression of the stunning diversity that still defines Western culture.
What was your experience working Smithsonian Folkways like?
I have been a fan of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings for many years. I have scoured record stores for their old LPs and I have bought the CDs they have released in the times that I have been a conscious music buyer. When I began to develop the album, I knew that it had to be on Smithsonian Folkways. Also knowing that SF had an African American Legacy Series, which has the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it was crucial to get the album on there.
What has made working with Smithsonian Folkways so rewarding is that that the first question they asked me was, “Dom, what is your vision? What do you think will make a statement that will hold full for 50 years…100 years even?” That was a tall order, but it inspired me to step up to the plate and create what I hope will be an enduring testament to the Black cowboys and what they represent.
You have an amazing team of musicians playing with you on the album. How did you choose who you wanted to play on the album with you?
I did the recordings for the album in two separate sessions. The first session was done at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi. I have known Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus for a while now, and it was a long overdue moment to make some great music together. Both are highly celebrated musicians and it was a true honor to work with them in a beautiful setting. Across the street from the studio the train driven by Casey Jones sits for all to view. We did the session over a few days and two of the tracks were featured on the final album (“One Dollar Bill,” “Texas Easy Street”).
As for the rest of the album, I wanted to keep things stripped down and chose my cast of characters wisely. I featured two young musicians who I have worked with for the past several years. Brian Farrow has been touring with me as the Dom Flemons Duo for the past three years and is featured on fiddle, upright bass and background vocals. Dante Pope has toured with me occasionally and is featured on snare drum, rhythm bones, and background vocals. Finally, Daniel Sheehy, former director of Smithsonian Folkways, joined me on guitarron. Dan co-produced the record with me, and, almost as a joke, he mentioned that he could add guitarron as he had it in the car. I told him to grab it as I had felt that there was a distinctive lack of “Mexican” music on the album. The bass tones of the guitarron on the string band numbers gave it a flavor that made it sound like Tex-Mex. Not being fluent in Spanish myself, I felt this was a way to represent the Mexican vaqueros of the West without butchering their beautiful language.
You’ve done a lot of work as a historian and scholar. Can you talk a little about what it was like for you to combine music and history on this project?
Well, the music is one thing. The music must stand on its own without any historical context. I always go on the idea that if I gave someone a CD with no label the music would come across on its own. The other half of this record is the variety of wonderful imagery that accompanies it. The cover was painted by renowned Western artist William Matthews, who fell in love with the project. Next, the folks at the Smithsonian helped me combed the archives to get the rights to use a variety of photographs that range from the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, and many private collectors to piece together a comprehensive picture of Black cowboys in all of their glory. Finally, not satisfied to just have archival photographs, I recreated the old-time cowboys with the help of tintype photographer Timothy Duffy. With his vintage Deardoff 11×14 tintype camera, Tim captured my vision of cowboys and Black women of the West that are sprinkled throughout the liner notes to link together the past and the present of Black cowboys in history.
Overall, this project took two years to create. My wife Vania Kinard and I combed through about three dozen books on Black cowboys and condensed everything we read down to the final product featured in the notes. Vania grew up in California and she found the concept around the album appealing to her own family story. The whole history is multi-faceted. Cowboys aren’t the only part of this story. You have working class African Americans from every walk of life moving out West building new communities as the United States expanded with Manifest Destiny. There are Black Indians, African Americans who passed as Native Americans, and vice versa. Buffalo Soldiers are a part of the story. What makes the album so special is that it is an introduction to the whole concept of the African American West.
I also had the great fortune to get Big Jim Griffith, the former state folklorist of Arizona, to contribute to the notes creating the proper context for the time period and biographies of some of the more prominent Black cowboys of the West. Overall, it has been an honor to bring so many avenues of this enduring story into a single place for people to enjoy for years to come.