Dom Flemons on the Old West Stories Behind ‘Black Cowboys’

Dom Flemons (Photo: Scott Baxter)

Exploring more ancient literature, while earning his degree in English at Northern Arizona University, Dom Flemons started digging deeper into the study of folk music on a more literary level. 

“As I began to find more African-American folk songs, I couldn’t help but want to contextualize them in some capacity,” said the Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist and music scholar during a recent interview on Color Me Country Radio with Rissi Palmer on Apple Music Country.  “When I finally made my way to North Carolina, I got a chance to be able to be a part of the academic community, as well as be a part of the performing arm of creating awareness for a bit style of music, too.”

After college, Flemons, along with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, started playing with the then 85-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson, and The Carolina Chocolate Drops were formed.

Thompson, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 93, played an older style of music out of his native Mebane, North Carolina, just west of Durham, so the trio would go to his house each week…. to learn his music.

“As a small ensemble, the three of us learned how to be Joe’s perfect backup band for his music,” shares Flemons, “but when we went off on our own, we became the Carolina Chocolate Drops.”

Dom Flemons (Photo: Scott Baxter)

Still with the Drops, Flemons’ most recent solo album Black Cowboys (2018), is a collection of songs that was more than a decade in the works. It started with a small idea, like most of his songs, and a story that holds well. “We’re in such a time where the audience only has so much of an attention span, so if a story isn’t engaging, how can you expect for your one story to stick,” he says.

Always looking for stories of black cowboys from Arizona and out West, Flemons came upon the book “Negro Cowboys,” which was written in the 1960s and is a condensed version of black Western history as a whole, which helped him conceptualize the Black Cowboys album.

Flemons, who is Black and Mexican, says there are many stories of Blacks and Black Mexicans out west, dating as far back as 1691. Then, he came across a Rounder Records compilation called Black Texicans, featuring Library of Congress field recordings from John and Alan Lomax of Black Cowboys out in the prisons or on the ranges in Texas, and a song “The Old Chisholm Trail,” one of the songs featured on Black Cowboys.

“Being in Arizona, going to the folk festivals, I’d heard cowboy music, and I had always loved the style though I’d never played it, per se,” says Flemons. “I heard some of these field recordings and the way that they were singing it… the phrasing was very funky. Just by hearing it, I heard that there was a relevance to telling the ‘Black Cowboys’ story in audio that was different than just the pictures.”

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